Discussion On the Future Of the American Labor Movement

Labor Advocate Online

The Labor Party: What It Is, What It Isn’t, What We Hope It To Become
by Bill Onasch

As we discuss the future of the American labor movement we find politics intruding at nearly every point. The huge question of actual and threatened offshoring of our jobs is part and parcel of the broader political drive of what has become known as Globalization.

When we try to organize the unorganized we find the deck is stacked against us by the rules and practice of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB.)

When we go on strike we find the obviously most effective tactics are forbidden by the Taft-Hartley Act that governs most private sector workplaces. Of course, many in the public sector have no legal bargaining rights at all.

The most contentious issues in today’s contract negotiations are not even on the table in other industrialized countries. Nearly everywhere else such essentials as health care, retirement benefits, and paid time off, are written into law, covering all workers, safe from individual employer demands for give-backs.

Once American labor stood apart from the rest of the world because of the superior living standards and working condition we had won. Today we stand alone in one regard only–we are the sole industrialized country where the labor movement has no major political party of our own.

I won’t attempt in this article to deal with the complex historical factors that led to this unique deficiency. I’m going to restrict my self to the current project to establish a party rooted in the American labor movement–the aptly, if ambitiously named Labor Party (LP.)

The Labor Party project began in the early Nineties with the formation of a group called Labor Party Advocates (LPA.) It was initiated by a most remarkable, but largely unsung leader, the late Tony Mazzocchi Mazzocchi’s previous accomplishments in various positions in the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers union (OCAW) included spearheading the political drive that established OSHA during the Nixon administration. Unlike typical union officials Mazzocchi gained wide respect beyond the union movement as well through collaboration with leaders and activists in the peace, civil rights, and environmental movements. He was a close associate of Ralph Nader.

Mazzocchi convinced OCAW to back LPA as an effort to test the waters for Labor Party sentiment. His initial strategy projected education within unions about the need for such a party; union endorsement and commitment of at least modest resources; and signing up individual workers–even if they didn’t belong to a union–for LPA membership. Once a critical mass of wide union endorsement, and recruitment of 100,000 or so individual members, had been assembled then Mazzocchi thought the conditions would be ripe for launching a mass party that could seriously contend for power.

As so often happens, this logically constructed strategy had to be adjusted to unexpected and uncontrolled developments. After the watershed passage of NAFTA, the initial low-key efforts of LPA started striking a much louder responsive chord. Union endorsements started flowing in. LPA local chapters mushroomed in cities large and small across the country. There was a great clamor for a convention to plan action.

A Founding Convention gathered in Cleveland in June, 1996. Over 1400 strong, it was a most impressive event. Stereotypes abounded as well-fed, well-dressed union officials rubbed shoulders with starry-eyed rank-and-filers, and cynical leftist sectarians. All were convinced they were present at an historic occasion–as indeed we were. Virtually all demanded that the Advocates declare themselves a Party–and so we did.

Jerry Gordon argues, in his interesting article What Next for the Labor Party?, that it would have been better to have maintained LPA rather than launching a party that wasn’t ready to run candidates in elections. I think that is undoubtedly true. But that just wasn’t going to happen.

I believe there are many parallels between successful union organizing and building our Labor Party. I was privileged some years ago to work on a successful major UE organizing campaign at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That drive was led by some of the best organizers in the business–the late Hugh Harley, long-time UE Director of Organization; Ed Bruno, who succeeded Harley in that position; Amy Newell, who later served as UE General Secretary-Treasurer. They saw the principal goal of organizing not just winning an NLRB election; not even winning that always difficult first contract. No, the objective was to build a solid, on-going organization of the workers that could flex their muscle day-to-day on the shop floor. It was vital to patiently build that organizing objective and not be rushed into premature confrontations with the boss.

But there came a time when the Litton workers became so fired up they gave us an ultimatum: fish or cut bait. We want an election now. Even though we were still weak in some areas and could have used more time we had no real choice. We had to file for an NLRB election. On that occasion, a lot of hard work and a little luck prevailed–but it could have gone either way.

That was the situation that Tony Mazzocchi and the core LPA leadership faced at the Cleveland convention. Undoubtedly, Mazzocchi could have mobilized the union bloc vote to bring the hammer down and maintain LPA. But that would have dissipated the momentum of the movement--and it is far from certain that could have been regenerated once again in the future. The risk of declaring the party had to be taken.

In any case, we’re not going to get the cork back into the LPA bottle, to be returned to the cellar for further aging. We have to either drink what’s before us–or pour it down the drain.

A Different Kind of Party
The fledgling, perhaps premature party coming out of Cleveland was like no other party on the American scene.

It didn’t cynically promise the impossible task of representing "all the people." It pledged only to fight for working people. A comprehensive program was adopted addressing most of the principal issues facing the working class.

The boss parties are electoral machines whose lives totally revolve around election cycles. Eight years after its founding the Labor Party has yet to field or endorse a single candidate for office. This seems unusual to most, suspicious, even disturbing to others.

The Labor Party begins with an approach that views politics as much more than elections. Political fights around issues go on all the time in the workplace, on campuses, in community forums, in demonstrations in the streets. The Labor Party aims--to the extent of its limited resources--to participate in, learn from, and offer its perspective to those struggles. Ultimately such battles are more important than elections.

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