Labor Advocate Online
A Party Of A Different Kind
by Bill Onasch
[This article is meant to accompany Labor Party Prepares to Enter Electoral Arena. A version will appear in the print edition of Socialist Action and Online edition of Labor Standard]
We are told from the day we start understanding words, in schools, churches, and by the mass media, that elections are where all disputed questions in society must ultimately be settled. But electoral politics in the United States is not worker friendly. The ruling class, made up of our employers and finance capitalists, call all the shots.
Our "Founding Fathers" tried to restrict voting to white, male property owners. The voter lists have expanded only through determined struggle by the disenfranchised–and the fight is far from over yet.
The President is still selected by an arcane Electoral College and may not be the candidate who received the most votes–as we were reminded in the 2000 election.
Our rulers figure two parties–owned lock, stock, and barrel by them–should be more than enough choices for us. These institutionalized Establishment parties allow the boss class to work out any tactical differences among themselves. They also provide a cover of democratic choice when workers usually reluctantly choose a "lesser evil" on election day.
Other parties and independents are viewed as unwelcome interlopers and face enormous obstacles to even getting on the ballot. Those that do make the cut are branded "spoilers," and we are warned not to "waste" our votes on such nobodies.
The fact of the matter is that major breakthroughs for working people in our history did not come about through the electoral process. The Bill of Rights, abolition of slavery, voting rights for women and Blacks, collective bargaining, an end to the Vietnam war, the few social benefits of the New Deal and War on Poverty, and more, all came through extra-electoral actions–revolution, civil war, great strikes, mass demonstrations. Those are arenas where the great potential power of the working class can be most effectively realized.
Such actions are also politics. The most elections, and legislative and judicial acts flowing from them, do is merely ratify the victories–or defeats–of our class in our day-to-day struggles. That’s why class conscious workers have always recognized that a political party truly representing us has to be involved in all these forms of politics–not just, not even primarily, elections.
Socialist Tradition and the Labor Party
Socialists have long championed the call for a labor party. Eugene Debs was a spokesman for the Socialist Party at a time when it had tens of thousands of members and he received hundreds of thousands of votes for President. Debs still worked for the creation of a labor party.
"I want to see the workers of this nation rise in the might of their intelligence and demand a party of their own, free, eternally free from the paralyzing putridities of the parties of their silk-hatted, wealth-inflated, job-owning and labor-exploiting masters—a party with a backbone and the courage to stand up without apology and proclaim itself a Labor Party, clean, confident of its own inherent powers, bearing proudly the union label in token of its fundamental conquering principle of industrial and political solidarity, and challenging the whole world of capitalism to contest the right of this nation to own its own industries, to control its own economic and social life, and the right of the toiling and producing masses to own their own jobs, to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, and to be the masters of their own lives."
Debs made it clear he didn’t demand an explicitly socialist program. Speaking to a labor conference considering the idea of a labor party he said,
"If a genuine labor party is organized at Chicago I shall not expect the platform to go the limit of radical demands but shall be satisfied with a reasonable statement of labor’s rights and interests as well as its duties and responsibilities, doubting not that with the progress of the party its platform will in due time embrace every essential feature of the working class program for deliverance from industrial servitude."
The Socialist Workers Party, before abandoning its Trotskyist tradition in the 1980s, made the creation of a labor party a central feature of its program. When the present labor party project began to take shape in the early Nineties many former SWP cadres, including some of those organized today in Socialist Action, and around Labor Standard, eagerly got on board.
Previous localized experiments with a labor party–such as the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, and the American Labor and Liberal parties in New York–failed largely because they neglected their roots in the broad class struggle and became almost solely focused on electoral politics. The Minnesota party eventually surrendered to the Democrats, creating today’s DFL. The ALP, strongly influenced by the Communist Party, became a Cold War casualty and dissolved in the 1950s. The Liberal Party–an AFL split from the ALP–ultimately degenerated into a one-man operation, cynically selling its ballot line to any candidate wishing to pay.
Tony Mazzocchi, Labor Party 'Founding Brother'
Tony Mazzocchi, the "Founding Brother" of Labor Party Advocates (LPA), the forerunner of the Labor Party, was well grounded in labor history--including abortive attempts at independent political action. A leader in the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCAW), Tony was also a veteran of successful extra-electoral activity.
Mazzocchi is universally credited with being the single most important person in the fight to establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA.) Tony often reminded us that this long struggle culminated in victory not under "labor’s friend" LBJ and his "veto-proof" Democrat congress, but instead during the Nixon administration–as were other important accomplishments, such as the EPA and the Urban Mass Transit Act. Mazzocchi was also one of the few prominent union leaders who played an active role in the movement against the Vietnam war. He understood better than most union bureaucrats, then or now, that grass roots issue organizing, and mass demonstrations, are effective political action.
Mazzocchi’s vision was to create a labor party on two levels. A strong foundation had to be built on affiliated labor unions–the only true mass organizations of the working class in the U.S. today. Their resources are indispensable to getting a real party launched.
But the LPA pioneers also recognized that nearly ninety percent of the working class is outside organized labor. In order to seriously contend for power the party also has to be built in our communities as well.
LPA started out with a long term outlook, patiently winning over support of unions; recruiting individual members of these affiliates to the party; and building up community chapters open to all who agreed with the LPA perspective, union member or not. When LPA had won affiliations from a substantial section of the union movement, and had recruited at least 100,000 members to its community chapters, then the call for a Labor Party would go out.
This tempo had to be adjusted after the Clinton administration ruthlessly drove through the North America Free Trade Agreement in 1993. Union bureaucrats and ranks alike were outraged by what they saw as a betrayal by those claiming to be their friends–and who could not have been elected without labor’s support. There was suddenly great interest in the idea of a labor party. Union endorsements of LPA started pouring in and community chapters started mushrooming across the country, signing up thousands of members.
When LPA called a Founding Convention, held in Cleveland in June, 1996, it was clear that the 1400+ delegates wanted a party–now. Through weighted voting, the union officials present could have done anything they wanted. Most thought declaring a party was premature, but were reluctant to pour cold water on so much genuine enthusiasm. The Labor Party was declared formed and an excellent program was adopted.
The Founding Convention sidestepped the question of electoral politics. This was deferred to an Electoral Policy Commission charged with bringing a report back to the next convention.
Electoral Policy Commission
That Commission, after a rich, wide ranging discussion, wrote the party’s stand on electoral politics that was approved, after a lively debate, at the party’s 1998 convention. We emphasized that the party we were out to build to lead the working class to take political power was far different than the miserable excuses for "major" parties.
"Although we accept electoral politics as an important tactic, we do not see it as the only tool needed to achieve working class power. Unlike other political parties, the Labor Party will be active before, during and between elections, building solidarity in our communities, workplaces and unions."
Aware of the problems of out of control office holders that other labor-based parties around the world have experienced, such as the British Labour Party, the German Social Democrats, and the Canadian NDP, a strong accountability clause was inserted:
"The Labor Party is not politics as usual — we are a party of principle. Candidates shall be chosen by the members through convention at the appropriate level, not through primary. Once elected, officials are responsible to the party on core issues in the Labor Party platform. When issues arise that are not in the platform, officials shall consult with LP members for guidance. Elected officials who do not abide by the LP platform will not be allowed to run for re-election as LP candidates."
We took up–and rejected–"cross endorsement." This tactic, available in a few states, notably New York and Connecticut, allows candidates to appear on multiple party lines on the ballot. Historically, groups like the old American Labor Party in New York would run a few candidates of their own for minor offices while cutting deals to support Democrats for the top contests. That’s wheeling and dealing within the present rotten system, not a clean working class break from the boss parties.
"The Labor Party will support only candidates for office who are Labor Party members running solely as Labor Party candidates. The Labor Party will not endorse any other candidates."
We also decided not to run token campaigns, running in the distant tail end along with the Prohibition and Natural Law parties. Such campaigns are often a useful tactic for small socialist groups looking for any and all opportunities for getting ideas out and attracting individual recruits. But it was unlikely that we could get unions to burn bridges with the Democrats to support a low key, vanguard propaganda campaign. We wanted our election campaigns to be taken seriously, to reflect the party’s actual strength–not weakness--in the contested area.
To ensure this perspective we consciously set a high bar to clear for any local or state party bodies wanting to field candidates. First requirement was a political impact statement that includes the economics and demography of the target district, the resources and politics of the incumbent, the nature of the opposition, the history of recent elections, the current political issues in the district and the level of working-class activism. The statement also had to show how the campaign fits national LP priorities.
Once the preliminary analysis was approved it had to be demonstrated that resources were available to run a credible campaign including: sufficient election volunteers to cover precincts; endorsing unions represent a significant portion of area union membership, sufficient to ensure that LP candidate will be seen as the labor candidate; credible candidate, able to articulate LP program; campaign financing plan; campaign committee reflecting the demographics of the district; campaign manager prepared to carry out the campaign; campaign plan that includes tactics and goals for growth of the party; endorsements or support from local community organizations.
The 1998 Pittsburgh convention, about the same size as the Founding gathering, approved the electoral policy by a comfortable margin. Ambitious issue campaigns were projected to both take into the unions and door-to-door in the communities. These included:
Just Health Care. A proposal for a Canadian-style single-payer health plan worked out in collaboration with Physicians for a National Health Plan, the California Nurses Association, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research. It even offers a detailed budget, including funds for a just transition for health insurance employees needing a new career.
Free Higher Education. A plan for what the name implies.
Campaign for Worker Rights. A comprehensive program for new labor law.
Such campaigns are the kind of day-to-day work that must be done to build an effective mass movement and there have been some successes with them here and there. But, since that 1998 convention the party has been largely treading water for a number of reasons.
Unfortunately, many of those who had built chapters with the expectation that dramatic breakthroughs were around the corner began to drift away. Others, focused on electoral activity, turned to the new cross-endorsement scam, the Working Families Party, or the Greens.
Union mergers and internal union politics also took their toll. OCAW–the sparkplug and mainstay from the beginning of LPA-- got swallowed up by the Paperworkers who gave only the barest token support to LP. Recently another stalwart, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, entered the Teamsters. So far, the BMWE Pennsylvania Federation has continued to play a very active role.
Shortly after the party’s smaller third convention in 2002, Tony Mazzocchi lost his battle with cancer. Tony played an indispensable role in launching the party and certainly no one person will ever take his place. But his political legacy included leaving a labor party project that can continue without him.
There were further distractions in the labor movement with the Anybody But Bush fiasco during the 2004 election, followed by an unprincipled split in the AFL-CIO.
Up to now no Labor Party body had been able to meet the sensible minimum requirements set for running candidates. The first breakthrough opportunity is arising in what many would consider a most unlikely place–South Carolina. But how many would have bet on Minneapolis, Toledo, or Flint being main battlegrounds that turned labor around in the 1930s?
Bill Onasch, a retired Kansas City bus driver, was elected at the Labor Party’s last convention to represent Midwest chapters on the LP Interim National Council. He also served on the party’s Electoral Policy Commission.
Labor Party Prepares To Enter Electoral Arena
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