Another Choice For South Carolina—An
Example For Us All
by Bill Onasch
[I want to make clear that the following is not an “official” report but my personal take on the South Carolina developments and the recent meeting of the Labor Party national leadership.]
On September 23, delegates representing unions and local committees from around the state assembled at the CWA union hall in Columbia to officially launch the South Carolina Labor Party. Probably for the first time since Eugene Debs was on the ballot a clear working class political alternative is offered to those who toil in the Palmetto State.
This is not only a big deal for working people in South Carolina. Their effort is the first time the Labor Party has sought ballot status anywhere. The lessons of this pioneer effort will affect future strategy and tactics of the national organization.
The Labor Party electoral policy, adopted at a well-attended 1998 convention after extensive debate, lays down some strict but sensible guidelines for running candidates. It requires both substantial numbers of activists to carry out an effective campaign and sufficient union support to demonstrate credibility as a labor alternative. The irony of the first to comply with these prerequisites being a state with one of the lowest union densities has been recognized by all.
But while South Carolina unions may not be so dense important sections of that state’s labor movement have long consciously reached out to their communities and have earned considerable authority among unorganized workers. Prominent union bodies such as the South Carolina AFL-CIO, International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 (home of the Charleston Five), and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 610, representing transit workers in both Columbia and Charleston, were not merely endorsers of the Labor Party project—they were on board from the beginning, freely contributed resources and put their reputation on the line in the communities. Other local union bodies were won over along the way.
Crucial as this union support was it was mainly the yeast in the dough that still had to be baked in the community oven. To obtain official party status in South Carolina requires a petition with at least 10,000 valid signatures of registered voters, sorted by county. While some signatures were obtained at union meetings and by job stewards the volume demanded meant going out to the public and asking them to help put a new working class party on the ballot.
The organizers made the best of this burden. While completion took longer than initially expected the petition campaign was seen as an opportunity to build the new party in formation. They approached working people door-to-door, not unlike home visits during union organizing drives. They also quickly learned that the Saturday flea markets, heavily patronized by thrifty working folks, were an excellent venue for this work as well. As a result, by the end of the petition drive they not only had more than 16,500 signatures but had also recruited many new volunteers and planted the seeds of party units in counties throughout the state. This ensured that the delegates to the founding convention reflected the diversity of the South Carolina working class—Black and white, men and women, union and unorganized, urban and rural—as well as the vanguard of the state’s union movement.
Another key component of the Labor Party electoral policy is emphasis on accountability of candidates to the party’s program and membership bodies. First of all, the party endorses only candidates of our own. The policy further states,
“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.”
This differs not only from the boss parties but also labor parties that have lost their way in countries such as Britain and Canada. It also set the Labor Party apart from another party debuting in South Carolina—the Working Families Party.
The WFP, launched in New York by several unions in alliance with ACORN, uses the “secret weapon of fusion”—derided by some wags as “con-fusion.” Fusion is when candidates can run on multiple party lines. In practice, parties such as WFP may occasionally run candidates of their own for minor offices but mainly concentrate on negotiating deals with Democrats and Republicans to put them on their line. For example, this Fall Hillary Rodham Clinton will appear on the New York ballot as a candidate of the Working Families Party as well as a Democrat.
Few states allow such horse-trading but South Carolina is one permitting fusion deals. This year the WFP showed up. They contracted with ACORN to bring in large numbers of young people from around the country for a petitioning blitz. After the petition was turned in a small, brief pro forma “convention” was held to meet legal requirements. No effort was made to build a party organization on the ground in the state. Indeed, none is really needed since their strategy is confined to election cycle deals by the leaders with candidates of other parties.
The WFP name may confuse some into thinking there are two competing labor parties. They are actually two very different projects. The SCLP delegates that I spoke with found the idea of candidate accountability one of the most attractive selling points of the Labor Party.
The SCLP founding convention spent the better part of a Saturday adopting their Founding Principles (reproduced at the end of this article), along with a Constitution & Bylaws, and an implementation agreement setting up a working structure. In addition to affiliated unions the party will be organized along geographic lines with provisions for county and precinct party clubs. Unions and clubs alike will share representation on all leading bodies. Committees were established to promote party organizing, fund raising (sorry, no corporate donations accepted), and to plan election contests. (The party was certified by the state too late to run in this November election. There will be some local elections in 2007 and, of course, the next general election in 2008.)
Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, and Willie Legette, professor of political science at SC State University, were elected co-chairs of the SCLP. Afterwards, they invited others, including those of us in town for a meeting of the Labor Party Interim National Council (INC—equivalent of the national committee) to join them in celebrating this historic event.
Being there helped confirm for me all the great things I had heard about South Carolina. Every delegate there had participated in the exhausting petition drive. It was refreshing to find that, unlike the practice of so much of the labor movement today, not a single one was paid to attend nor had the notion that their commitment to more hard work was a clever career advancement move. These folks were there because they believe in their cause and are ready to walk the walk To borrow a phrase from Lincoln Steffens, I have seen the future and it works.
When the INC convened the following day we were all in a pretty good mood. The national Labor Party could feel proud of the contribution that many around the country had made in supporting the ground breaking effort in South Carolina—particularly through fund raising. Two LP affiliates—USW Local 675, a refinery local based in Los Angeles, and the Pennsylvania Federation of the BMWE-T—contributed substantial amounts and other local union bodies chipped in according to their means. There were also fund raising events organized by party chapters and individuals in a number of cities as well as a pledge of fund support from the ILWU national convention. All this would be peanuts by boss party standards, of course, but was sufficient to help get the SCLP off and running.
There were other successes to report. The Labor Party had a highly visible presence at the recent American Federation of Government Employees convention and the delegates renewed their party affiliation. The SPAN Ohio campaign to allow voters of that state to have a say about adopting single-payer health care—initiated by the Ohio State Labor Party, and strongly supported by the Midwest Joint Board of UNITE-HERE, a LP affiliate—is doing well. So are local LP efforts around the health care issue in places such as Detroit, and Gainesville, Florida. The Free Higher Ed campaign has been well received by the AAUP and professional groups and is poised to widen influence ever further. Some LP units are actively building the successful actions of US Labor Against the War.
But there was a sobering part of the meeting as well as we discussed material resources. As unpleasant as this topic is, especially in contrast to the inspiring new opportunities that are opening up, I think there is an obligation to share this with party supporters—and to appeal for help.
One of the disservices coming out of the “service model” that prevails in the U.S. labor movement is dependence on a hierarchy of structures and officials. Like retaining a lawyer, locals send dues money up the chain and expect their “service” in return. Members typically are levied two hours pay or more per month to pay for this relationship.
Labor Party dues are twenty dollars a year—ten dollars for unemployed and low income workers. That doesn’t buy much service.
Even affiliation fees for union bodies are relatively low. A national union need only pay ten thousand dollars annually. There is a sliding scale, based on membership numbers, for other affiliating union bodies with small locals paying as little as fifty dollars a year. We’re not talking about millions here. Compulsory dues and affiliation fees don’t generate much more than the income of a medium sized local union.
When the Labor Party was launched a decade ago the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCAW) was a primary sponsor, investing many times more than their required affiliation fee. A few other national unions also made major contributions of staff time and various in kind support. The low fees and nominal individual dues were set to encourage party growth.
The momentum of growing official union support that had sparked the launching of the Labor Party in 1996 began to slow after a couple of years as national unions came to focus on declining membership numbers in the new global economy. Mergers began to reshape the labor landscape.
After the shocking victory of Bush in 2000, followed by a new intensified reactionary offensive up and down the line, most national union leaderships panicked and returned to their old “labor friend” electoral strategy. They decided to swallow their feeling of betrayal over NAFTA and started giving unprecedented support to the Democrats. While the Labor Party was rattling a tin cup, about 400 million dollars of union political money went to support Democrat “friends” in the 2004 election cycle.
A couple of years ago some were hopeful about a great debate about the future of the labor movement that opened up in the top sections of union leadership. Unfortunately, little progress came out of that exchange and it in fact led to a weakening split in the union movement.
As a result, not only has there been little new national union support won for the Labor Party in recent years; some of the former stalwarts are gone or have greatly reduced their contributions. The OCAW merged with the Paper Workers to form PACE and PACE later joined with the Steelworkers to form USW. The two mergers maintained affiliation to LP but, with different political priorities, have not made significant contributions beyond the minimal affiliation fees.
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees was absorbed by the Teamsters who revoked their LP affiliation—though the BMWE-T Pennsylvania Federation remains a strong supporter.
Some of the smaller national affiliates, facing financial crunches of their own, are no longer in a position to be as generous as they once were. And, on the local level, a fair number of former affiliates no longer exist, either because of mergers or because the workplaces they represented fell victim to plant closings.
Recent successful LP fund-raising has been—correctly, in my opinion—almost entirely ear-marked for the South Carolina project. But as that hopeful sign shines bright on one horizon paltry national union material support has resulted in a perfect storm coming together on the other—posing serious, immediate challenges for adequate functioning of the national party organization.
I think there is no question that in the long run experiences in the class struggle will lead to a transformation of our unions, including revival of interest in, and material support of the Labor Party. The idea has always been popular with the union ranks. But we can’t count on that shift happening soon enough to overcome the present challenge.
Outside of the unions there aren’t many deep pockets the party can appeal to. Corporate support is out of the question for the kind of party we seek to build. Grants from foundations usually have attached strings incompatible with our mission.
Parties controlled by workers have to be financed by workers and their class-based organizations. Like our predecessors who sacrificed so much to build the labor movement from scratch, during the present period of short rations we have to figure out innovative ways to make do as we take advantage of new political opportunities to build our party from the ground up.
Some economies on the expense side have been realized. Instead of the printed, mailed party newspaper we grew accustomed to during more prosperous days we now have an electronic edition posted on the Internet, formatted for downloading by affiliates and chapters. The party national office is being relocated outside the high rent Beltway in Washington. But there wasn’t much fat to trim to begin with. Any additional cuts will be debilitating.
I think it is safe to say that virtually no one in the party leadership is prepared to walk away from this fiscal challenge. Objectively, there has never been a time of greater need for a Labor Party. The response in South Carolina proves it is possible to build the party among working people both in and outside of unions. The program is a valuable acquisition that speaks to the needs of the working class today. The dedicated activists drawn to the Labor Party are a precious asset. Failure is simply not an option.
The INC meeting certainly didn’t come up with all the answers at our meeting in Columbia. But we did begin a serious discussion. Some directions are clear.
It is important to continue fund-raising efforts for the special electoral funds needed to make the South Carolina project a successful example for the rest of the country. But there must also be a modest increase of funding for the party’s national structure as well.
The national Labor Party cannot be looked to by affiliates, chapters and organizing committees as a “service” organization as many national unions style themselves to be. There’s not a big staff of full-time reps assigned to assist you. There has to be a lot more initiative and self-reliance in local Labor Party activities than most local unions are accustomed to. National support for local activities will be reserved for the highest priorities—today that is South Carolina. The Labor Party chapter in Gainesville, Florida has set a good example along these lines, including financing their own full-time organizer.
I would urge any individual readers not currently members of the Labor Party to at least take the basic step of signing up and paying your dues. You can easily do so online by clicking here.
Of course, ten or twenty dollars a year doesn’t go very far in supporting the Labor Party movement. Most members can afford to pay more. If only a few hundred agreed to set up an automatic payment of a modest ten dollars a month that would be a significant contribution to easing the cash flow crisis.
I am confident that we can find a way to gather both the volunteer activist power and resource power needed to move the present Labor Party from the good idea stage to becoming an expanding force for leading the working class majority to political power.
Bill Onasch represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party INC.
October 1, 2006
Founding Principles of the South Carolina Labor Party
We are a party of the working people of South Carolina. Employed and unemployed, men and women, native born and immigrant, we are the ones who have made this state great. Yet we do not share in South Carolina's prosperity nor do we have a voice in our state's future.
For too long, we have watched the politicians of both parties make concession after concession to the corporations that rule this state while our jobs have disappeared, our incomes have eroded and our children have gone uneducated. We are tired of the politics of fear and division that keep us divided and weak. We understand that only a party that is run by and for working people can speak to our real concerns.
We will conduct a never-ending campaign to secure the promise of the American Dream of opportunity, fairness and justice for all South Carolinians.
We will fight to create and preserve decent jobs and living wages for all who want to work.
We will work to establish the right to universal and quality health care in our state.
We believe that every South Carolinian deserves equal and free access to educational opportunity from pre-school through college to the maximum of their human potential.
We stand for fair taxes, a secure retirement and worker protections on the job. Our candidates will pledge to enact and enforce laws that benefit the vast majority of South Carolinians who work for a living.
Our candidates will not accept corporate money.
We will not compromise these values. Unlike other parties, we do not need permission from corporations and major funders to do what is right for the people of South Carolina. Unlike other parties, we will be active before, during and between elections, building solidarity in our communities and workplaces.
We are the South Carolina Labor Party.
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