Labor Advocate Online

A Tale of Two Conferences
A Modest Step Forward and a Giant Step Back

by Bill Onasch

Part One

By Way Of Introduction
There are a lot of fed up people out there looking for answers to the challenges facing the working class. Too many of them are getting answers that are at best incomplete, often dead wrong.

A logical place to start seeking guidance should be our first line of defense, our unions—at least for those of us fortunate enough to belong to one. But most of the leaders of these once mighty organizations seem as bewildered as anyone. Convinced they are in a fight for their very lives, and that only friends of labor in Washington can save them, they are largely preoccupied with a single goal—electing Kerry. Other stuff will just have to wait.

March Madness
A couple of months ago International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 in San Francisco got tired of waiting on our national leaderships to do something to respond to the attacks on labor. They took it upon themselves to issue a call for a "Million Worker March" in Washington, DC in October. The aims of the March were on point, taking up most of the major issues confronting the working class. The KC Labor web site endorsed and we wish them well.

With little in the way of material resources the initiators of the call nonetheless quickly won an impressive list of union and labor leader endorsements. Soon they got an indirect response from the highest layer of the union hierarchy.

A memo to affiliates, under the signature of Marilyn C. Sneiderman, Director of the Field Mobilization Department of the AFL-CIO, said,

"While we may agree with many of the aims and issues of the March, the AFL-CIO is NOT a co-sponsor of this effort and we will not be devoting resources or energies toward mobilizing demonstrations this fall. ...

"We think it is absolutely crucial that we commit the efforts of our labor movement to removing George W. Bush from office.

"We encourage our state federations, area councils and central labor councils not to sponsor or devote resources to the demonstrations in Washington, D.C. but instead to remain focused on the election..."

This edict means that those taking initiative from below are confronted not only by the usual array of bosses and government agencies—they also risk incurring the wrath of those in charge of their unions. The March organizers have given eloquent replies to the memo, and, for now at least, are pressing on with plans for the demonstration. 

Some unions and individual leaders may have a strong enough base to safely defy instructions from on high—but most do not. More vulnerable are peripheral organizations, such as US Labor Against the War, and the Labor Party, who risk ostracism if they condone what the federation tops consider “mutiny.” Clearly the federation warning to affiliates pretty much guarantees that even if the March is carried out attendance will be well below a million.

Convention Contradictions
This is a season for union conventions. One major event was the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) conclave. This is the AFL-CIO’s biggest affiliate.

Some good things happened there. For example, due to hard work by US Labor Against the War (USLAW), an excellent resolution was adopted condemning the occupation of Iraq and calling for bringing our GIs home.

The convention delegates formed the nucleus of a 10,000-strong march across the Golden Gate Bridge for health care.

They proposed some daring new initiatives in fighting for the unorganized.

But the real focus of the convention centered on this:

"We’re going to build the strongest grassroots political voice in North America. We’ve got a plan for winning back the White House, we’re going to raise money to pay for it, and we’ve the ‘purple power’ to carry it out—our member volunteers,"

And Now For Something Completely Different...
This deficient union response enhanced the importance of recent gatherings held independent of the union movement. In June, there were two significant conferences of interest to workers and students looking for alternatives to the political status quo—Socialism 2004, held in Chicago June 17-20 and the Green Party nominating convention, held in Milwaukee June 23-28. I attended the Chicago meeting.

There were some similarities: each attracted about a thousand participants; Peter Camejo, a Green Party leader in California, spoke at both; and the Nader presidential campaign was hotly debated at both. These two events drew some of the best activists in the labor, antiwar, environmental, and civil liberties movements. They warrant our close attention.

Socialism Defined
First we better deal with the "S" word. Few popular labels are as widely proclaimed, misunderstood, or consciously twisted as the term socialism.

The bosses, and their political and academic retinue, have tried their best to make socialism a dirty word. They falsely link socialism to authoritarianism and terrorism. Socialist is a tag widely applied to any group or person they perceive as trouble makers. They encourage workers to fear and despise socialism as an alien threat to the American way of life.

In fact there are probably as many different visions of socialism, advanced by disparate groups, as there are denominations of Christianity.

Bill Gates wouldn’t like being called a fascist even though German, Italian, and Spanish capitalists once opted for that model of rule. Why should all socialists be compared to Stalin or Pol Pot? Far from being restricted to alien influences there is a rich heritage of American socialism including the likes of Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, A Phillip Randolph, Jane Adams, AJ Muste, and countless more. Socialists played a vital role in establishing the American trade union movement.

Let’s take a quick look at a few of today’s currents who describe themselves as socialist.

Social Democrats USA (SDUA)
Despite their name, and a dubious claim of being in the tradition of Eugene Debs, this small group is really more representative of Reagan Democrats. Upon the occasion of the passing of the late lamented 40th president SDUSA remarked, "Most in the social democratic community readily acknowledge that, whatever our differences, Reagan's contagious optimism and firm stand against Soviet power were important to the remarkable recovery the United States made after Vietnam and a misbegotten decade of social and cultural conflict at home. One suspects that more of us than readily admit to it voted for him over Jimmy Carter in 1980." These socialists should cause no sleepless nights for the ruling class.

Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)
DSA describes itself as "America’s Democratic Socialist Voice," claiming to be the biggest socialist group. If SDUSA imitates Reagan Democrats we can say DSA is a continuation of New Deal Democrats. They favor patching the system up to make things better for the poor and the middle class. Many in DSA are union staffers and their views seldom stray from those of their bosses. From their stand on the 2004 election, "While there will no doubt be differences within the broad democratic Left over which candidate to support in the Democratic primaries, there should be no doubt of our determination to unite to defeat Bush and the Republicans in Congress. Any such differences in the primaries must not become obstacles to unity in the fight to depose the Bush regime democratically in the fall elections." Another way of saying Anybody But Bush.

Committees of Correspondence For Democracy and Socialism (C of C)
This group emerged from a 1991 split in the Communist Party that roughly mirrored Gorbachev’s break with hard line Stalinists in the Soviet Union. While still differing on some international issues their domestic political program is similar to DSA. So is their stand on the presidential election,
"There is general agreement on the left on the compelling need to defeat Bush. At the same time, it is self-evident that this objective is inseparable from the election of John Forbes Kerry."

In addition to these self-described socialists who focus on reforming American capitalism through influencing the Democrats (or, in SDUSA’s case occasionally Republicans), there are a number of groups sometimes categorized as "far left," or "hard left."

Reform Not Enough
The far left believes the social and economic problems facing working people are systemic, and cannot be adequately resolved through piece meal reforms. Their vision of socialism is a completely new social order that would include collective ownership of at least the "commanding heights" of the economy administered democratically through new workplace and community institutions.

By far the largest of such far left groups in this country is the International Socialist Organization (ISO). ISO, publishers of Socialist Worker newspaper and the magazine International Socialist Review, sponsored the Socialism 2004 conference.

Undoubtedly one factor in ISO’s success in recruiting young workers and students is their serious approach to ideas. They are not content to rely only on buzz words and sound bites. They try to learn and teach, analyze as well as act. That’s an admirable, if unusual, m.o. for any political group.

Unlike many of their more sectarian socialist competitors they invite others, outside their ranks, to participate in their conferences. This year’s event speakers included:

  • Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar

  • Perhaps the foremost muralist in America, Mike Alewitz

  • Poet and long time South Africa solidarity activist Dennis Brutus

  • Dave Cline, president of Veterans for Peace

  • National Writers Union president Gerard Colby

  • Liz Davies, former member of the British Labour Party national executive, resigned in protest over Blair’s "New Labour" policies

  • Max Elbaum, chronicler of the American radical movement

  • Democracy Now! radio show host Amy Goodman

  • Former framed-up death row prisoner Madison Hobley

  • Marine veteran of the Iraq invasion Michael Hoffman

  • and others

  • More than a hundred workshops and panels took place during the conference. Hundreds of book titles were available for purchase. Far from any hint of authoritarianism, this socialist managed event facilitated an exchange of ideas—sometimes in the form of heated debate—unlike anything I’ve ever seen at a union sponsored gathering.

    The ISO, like the rest of the "far left," view the Democrats and Republicans as capitalist parties. As a matter of principle, similar to not crossing a picket line, they reject any support to them. However, since they wisely recognize they have insufficient resources to run a credible campaign of their own, they are left with a challenge of what to recommend to workers who take the election seriously.

    That’s why perhaps the hottest topic was the question of Ralph Nader’s 2004 presidential campaign. In 2000 the ISO supported Nader. Early indications this time around suggested ISO would not support the current Nader campaign—primarily because the last one had failed to live up to expectations that it would build the movement for independent political action.

    But clearly many, if not most conference participants thought it was necessary to again endorse the Nader effort. One reason for this shift was the word that Peter Camejo would soon be named as Nader’s running mate.

    Camejo, who spoke twice at conference events, was once a prominent leader in another socialist group, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He had been the SWP presidential candidate in 1976.

    Camejo’s official campaign biography this time around gives this current description:

    "Peter Miguel Camejo (64) is a financier, businessman, political activist, environmentalist, author and one of the founders of the socially responsible investing movement. Camejo is Chair of the Board of Progressive Asset Management of California an investment firm he founded in 1987. The firm specializes in ‘socially responsible investing’ using investments for economic, social, and environmental transformation as well as to empower the true owners of corporations – the stockholders. In his book, ‘The SRI Advantage,’ (2002) Camejo shows how investing in this manner can actually result in greater profit for investors."

    While this résumé fits right in to Camejo’s new home in the Green Party, it seems an odd recommendation to those looking for a revolutionary transformation of society. Nevertheless, Camejo remains an effective orator and seemed to score more points among the socialists than he did at his own party’s convention—which we’ll turn to in Part Two.

    Respect—But Still Some Disagreements
    All in all, I would give a very high score to the Socialism 2004 conference. Assuming the annual event continues next year I would enthusiastically recommend participation. It’s the best mix of ideas and activists around today.

    More than that, I would extend my respect to the ISO as an organization doing good work, including their top quality publications. But there are two important areas of disagreement that keep me out of the ISO:

    These are important differences. But they are disagreements that can be discussed among friends and allies in the workers movement and will ultimately be tested and resolved in the experiences of the movement.

    Go to—Part Two, The Green Party Convention

    July 5, 2004