The Labor Party: What It Is, What It
Isn’t, What We Hope It To Become
by Bill Onasch
‘Other Forms of Electoral Action’
Jerry Gordon, who has been a loyal and effective builder of the Labor Party since the earliest days of LPA, is attempting to think through some ways of dealing with the ever-present topic of electoral activity. He writes,
"I believe that the Labor Party made a major mistake in viewing electoral action only through the narrow prism of running or not running Labor Party candidates. If we were not in a position to run candidates in our own name -- with possible exceptions here and there—the Party should have adopted as one of its main priorities a policy of urging affiliated and unaffiliated unions, wherever possible, to run independent candidates from their ranks for office, perhaps local office at the beginning....
"The experience of the Greens and the Working Families Party, while their approach to electoral politics differs fundamentally from ours, does at least prove that there are opportunities for third parties to contest successfully with the two major parties. These two parties have elected more than 200 of their candidates to local offices. Many people in this country are thoroughly disgusted with both the Democratic and Republican parties, and are searching for an alternative voice. The Labor Party should help provide that alternative, if not under our own banner at present then at least by encouraging unions to do so."
He says "The main point is this: electoral action should be a central activity for a labor party."
The problem for not just "a labor party" but for this currently existing Labor Party project is not just lack of material resources needed for competitive campaigns–though that is an important factor.
Nor is it simply a matter of nurturing alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans. In 1992 twenty percent of voters picked a candidate other than Clinton or Bush. But nineteen percent voted for a billionaire capitalist who didn’t like the direction of globalization–H Ross Perot. That was a significant challenge to the two parties but I didn’t vote for Perot and neither did Jerry Gordon.
The challenge is how we can utilize the election tactic to advance our program, build our party and other working class mass organizations, and help us to win power at the highest governmental levels.
We not only have to be wary of being lured into embarrassing adventures where we get a tiny number of votes. We also have to be concerned about election victories that are not based on a significant mass movement consciously supporting our broad perspective.
What happens if people elect us simply because they want change–and then we can’t deliver change? What happens, after we make some good speeches, and introduce good bills that go nowhere, and then can’t get the chuck holes patched, the garbage picked up, not to mention failing to improve health care or our schools? We then are held accountable for the problems of a system we oppose but still can't replace. Next election we become the target of the "time for a change" movement. This is what many well-meaning Green office holders will soon face.
Does that mean we wait until we can win power to run candidates? I wouldn’t go that far. It will take a while to establish ourselves as the credible opposition to boss parties. I don’t even exclude the possibility that it might make sense, on the basis of exceptional local conditions, to run candidates in today’s political climate. That’s always a judgment call option.
But there are no short-cuts, no viable alternatives to systematically winning over the bulk of the unions to the Labor Party; recruiting a mass membership base–including among the nearly ninety percent of the working class outside unions–in our communities; and becoming a respected component of not only union struggles but movements around social issues as well.
Those are enormous, and seemingly distant goals. But we can take heart that history has demonstrated time and again that radical change, when it comes, can come quickly, sometimes when least expected.
The last example of a minor third party vaulting to power was the Republicans. The GOP was founded in 1854. They didn’t start out with an emphasis on fiscal responsibility. They championed different moral values than those who use their name today–such as abolition of slavery and rights for women. They elected a President in 1860–a breath taking six years after their launch. The only downside of this happy story is that they were immediately challenged by a bloody civil war.
We hope to avoid another civil war. But we look forward to a time of rapid eruption of the kind of upsurge that elected Abraham Lincoln and brought about great social change.
Republicans of a different nation, Ireland, have a hopeful motto: Tiocfaidh ár Lá–Our Day Will Come! I’m convinced that conditions will come together, in the not too distant future, where we will have a shot at contending for leadership of a mass workers movement for fundamental change.
The question of all questions is will we be ready for it? Can we accumulate enough human cadres and material resources for that possibly brief window of opportunity for us to accomplish our mission?
This is by no means assured. Previous promising movements fell short and we have yet to find any magic bullet. But what are the alternatives? On this score Jerry Gordon and I are in complete accord:
"In assessing the Labor Party's prospects for the future, two questions have to be asked. The first is whether the goal of a mass labor party based on the unions remains something worth fighting for. For those who answer that question yes, the next question is whether there is any other formation on the scene today that can better advance the labor party perspective than the Labor Party. I submit there is not.
"If there is one lesson to be learned from what happened November 2, it is that we need a mass labor party in the U.S. now more than ever."
Where Does LP Go From Here?
Labor Party national organizer Mark Dudzic does a good job in setting the stage for the upcoming meeting of the party’s national leadership with his article, After the Elections: What Next? While the basic message of the Labor Party remains unaffected by the 2004 election it will now find a wider audience in the post-election discussion within the unions. It also takes on a greater sense of urgency.
"How long," he asks, "will labor and its allies continue to prop up the hollow shell of a party that can't win elections and promises, at best, to implement a kinder and gentler version of the corporate agenda that has devastated the lives of so many working people?
"Now is the time for the labor movement to commit its resources and activism into shifting the terms of debate and building a new working class majority."
Cutting across the despair deeply felt by so many who worked so hard to beat Bush he reminds us, "Sometimes a defeat can act as a catalyst for change. The crushing of the Pullman Strike over 100 years ago led unions to reconsider how they organized workers and led Eugene Debs to organize a new movement that broke with the Democratic and Republican parties. The activism unleashed by this year's election changed many people's lives. Fed up with Bush and all that he represents, they yearn for a better world. We must speak to those millions and build a new politics of hope. We must reach out to those who have fallen under the sway of populist conservative demagogues and present them with an alternative that will make a real difference in their lives. We must convince those who have concluded that politics is nothing more than a corrupt rich man's game that activism can bring real change. We must build a Labor Party out of the ashes of this election."
The discussion within union leadership will be spearheaded by LP’s affiliated unions. Each union will have to decide how to advance and integrate Labor Party building with their organization’s activities and internal culture. The party can offer suggestions and assistance but cannot involve ourselves in the internal workings of unions.
But what must be done, in my view, is to project a new public face, a more visible presence, in our communities. If we are to become a real party, not just a pressure group within the unions, or service group seeking unions as clients, there is no escaping, and should be no postponing, the need to build and rebuild Labor Party chapters and organizing committees throughout the land.
This is not an easy task. We have suffered from some false starts and bad experiences in the past. It will require more than merely adopting motions. It will not be accomplished overnight. But it must be done. We will start with what we have, not with what we wish for.
Labor Party Press
The single best asset of the Labor Party, in my opinion, is Labor Party Press. It is an excellent workers newspaper--none better on the scene today.
It is mailed to every Labor Party member. That’s good. There are several thousand well-informed, well-educated workers out there as a result. But I think we can get a lot more out of this valuable resource.
We can use LPP as an organizing tool to build our structure outside the unions. We can begin by approaching current readers of the paper–our rank-and-file membership--to volunteer to take local bundles to distribute on picket lines, demonstrations, working class shopping areas, college campuses.
Once wider distribution is under way we can organize discussions of the content of the paper. Where there are functioning chapters this can be done through advertised public forums. In other areas there can be smaller groups of members and contacts invited to house meetings. This can be an effective way of combining education, agitation, and organization building.
To reach an even broader potential audience we need to put our fine paper online.
Within the next several months I think the Labor Party needs to hold regional conferences in at least the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, and West Coast. These gatherings would articulate the party’s post-election strategy, have workshops on the three issue campaigns–and facilitate organization and reorganization of party units on the local and state levels. They could be useful and inspiring for veteran members, new contacts, and maybe even some of the fallen away who were once active in the party chapters.
We should strive to find ways, whether it be borrowing union staff, or utilizing retirees that wouldn’t expect a salary, to find a regional organizer for each of these areas to work with our understaffed national center in rebuilding the party’s visibility in the field.
A Major Test For the Labor Party
The great diversion of the 2004 election, that restricted advancement of the Labor Party in so many ways, has come to an end. There is a discussion, a search for answers to labor’s questions, on a scale not seen in generations. The viability of the Labor Party depends on our response to both new opportunities–and inevitable new sets of obstacles.
The Labor Party as constituted today is not the political party of the working class.
It is a promise of such a party--a collection of ideas, a repository of experiences, a group of dedicated activists still to be tested collectively in leadership and action.
What we hope it to become is a mass party that can utilize the potential might of the American working class to take political power away from the bosses in order to achieve peace, guarantee human and democratic rights, save our environment, and get a fair share of the wealth we create.
That vision is not pie-in-the-sky. It can be realized. But it can only come after patient, persistent toil at modest tasks for what will likely be a while to come. We’ll soon find out if we’re up to that.
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KC Labor webmaster Bill Onasch is a retired bus driver. He is a former Vice-President of ATU Local 1287 in Kansas City—an early endorser of Labor Party Advocates—and a former President of UE Local 1139 in Minneapolis. A founding member of US Labor Against the War he sits on the USLAW national Steering Committee. Onasch represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council.