The Labor Party: Past and Possible Future
by Robert H. Mast
As the right-wing offensive continues its surge, those millions believing in equality, justice, and freedom - the progressive left - face immense challenges in ideology and organization. They must try to identify who they are, understand what is happening in the world, and decide what role and political priorities they can adopt in this newest version of an ominous world. A lot of analysis and soul searching is required. Many oppositional organizations have arisen in the last decade as a response to the right-wing take-over of U. S. domestic and foreign policy. Among these, the Labor Party (LP) (http://www.thelaborparty.org) founded in 1996, bears scrutiny because of its anti-corporate and pro-working class nature, its vision of grass-roots mobilization, and its experiments in party building. I shall try here to review the party’s organizational experience and relationship with unions, communities, and the left. My information comes from nine years of direct party work in Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, and Detroit, along with monitoring of party activity around the country. Finally, I’ll speculate on a future LP that adopts a plan to closely link progressive unions with progressive community groups around the LP ideology and program.
The need is great today to review and learn from past political experience. This is required as a first step in building effective organization that can lead resistance to the right-wing onslaught and turn the direction of this country more toward democracy and equality. A broadly defined ‘working class’ is the constituency and building block, and from that large sector must come future political initiatives. Modest beginnings are seen in such organizations as U. S. Labor Against the War and the Million Worker March Committee. Such groups extend the reach and outlook of the peace and justice movement into deeper dimensions of class justice.
Except in a general way, my purpose is not to dwell upon the dynamics and nuances of capitalism. Many better minds than mine continue to inform us of these patterns in persuasive detail. I accept that capitalism’s internal contradictions are endemic and not reformable from a working class perspective. Serious systemic crises currently operate, with greater ones coming. I expect intensified ‘creative destruction’ of capital and workers, chronic militarism, and nonstop organizing of resistance by the world’s exploited and oppressed. I accept that this all is part of the long-term historical process leading toward more humane solutions. The tiny LP experiment in the late 20th Century in the U. S. is part of this process.
Summary of Labor Party Motion
”History in the Making” was emblazoned on delegates’ badges at the founding convention of the Labor Party, on June 6-9, 1996 in Cleveland, Ohio where some 1400 mostly-union delegates formed a new independent working class party. A constitution was created, an elementary national structure was formed, and an unusually progressive platform was hammered out by this first national union-based ‘labor party’ since the 19th Century. For about three years the challenge of a labor party spread widely and enticed many unions and individuals to it. At its peak in 1998-9 the party had some 15,000 members, 50 local chapters, and several hundred endorsing or affiliated unions that represented two million workers (some 13 percent of the unionized).
Like much of working class activism today, the LP is in a declining-hold mode, though the party maintains a skeleton office in Washington, D. C. headed by Mark Dudzik, formerly of Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE), with financial support from a small core of unions. The bimonthly Labor Party Press did good investigative journalism, but in April 2005 was replaced by the considerably abbreviated Labor Party News. The LP Interim National Council (INC) meets irregularly and focuses mostly on specific elements of the LP program (single-payer, free higher education, and labor law reform). The impact of anti-working class domestic and world trends fortunately are limbering up some INC members, along with Dudzik, who are beginning a creative search for new approaches. Local and state chapter organizing activity is minimal, though Iraq and the 2004 elections have induced some new energy in those chapters retaining LP identity and some continuity with local activism. Individual LP membership may have reduced by more than two-thirds since peak (numbers are not published). Reportedly, a number of endorsing or affiliated unions have drawn back financial and organizing support. Some critics say the party is dead or never really took life, others say it’s slumbering. Still others say it was a feel-good pipe dream, following the tradition of labor party failures in U. S. history, and emulating conservative labor parties in other parts of the world. However, a hardened minority of left-dedicated activists who truly support working class power has not given up the search for party renewal. Their work may bear fruit in time.
The Rise of the LP
The officially-created LP of 1996 that crested about 1999 was really begun in the early 1990s as Labor Party Advocates (LPA). This was a creature of now-deceased Tony Mazzocchi of the old Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), with the help of a sizeable handful of left leaders from such unions as the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) and the west coast sector of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). Scores of labor academics, independent intellectuals, detached socialists, and class-conscious progressives further facilitated the LP planning and organizing thrust. Mazzocchi made hundreds of visits to unions and progressive gatherings to beat the LP drum and encourage unionists to help move the LP project forward. His message of hope, class politics, and independence from the two main parties resonated among many. Among those attracted were radical liberals with a socialist stripe (progressives?), some students and their left professors, labor scholars, left union functionaries and their followings, union retirees with some memory of past labor struggles, cadre from the variously-sectarian Marxist grouplets, and some activists from grass roots community groups. LPA community chapters became established in some 26 states, usually in urban centers with higher union densities and left traditions. LPA units also were created in several hundred union bodies with some kind of left presence.
The Cleveland founding convention in 1996 – one of my more inspiring political moments - brought it all tentatively together. Despite growing national conservatism, labor’s weakness, a new world capitalist order, and the international decline of socialism, many of us became totally dedicated to building an independent left party grounded in the unions and embracing the community. Later, we resonated to the LP’s electoral resolution, passed at the 1998 First Constitutional Convention, which began with, “The Labor Party is unlike any other party in the United States. We stand independent of the corporations and their political representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties. Our overall strategy is for the majority of American people – working class people – to take political power.” This was to be the new thrust of the 21st century, drawing on the rich experience of labor parties throughout the world and the earlier days of the U. S. labor movement, and building on the left-liberal penchant among a substantial sector in the U. S.
In the early 90s, few progressives saw labor as any kind of political vanguard. Many were prejudiced toward organized labor because of industrial partnerships, internal corruption, and marriage to the Democratic Party. Many were turned off by electoral politics and preferred ‘street heat,’ or other forms of resistance adopted in the 60s, as we wait for capitalism’s implosion and an impoverished working class spontaneously rising up in self interest. The efforts of Mazzocchi and fellow Labor Party builders were not broadly known. However, as the word spread slowly, some left-progressives (inside and outside the union structures) became party activists. Since this was a period of third party formation, some joined the other left-like parties being formed - New Party, Green Party, Working Families Party - that, unlike the LP, quickly experimented with electoral politics. The mainstream media chose to ignore the LP phenomenon while much of the left-wing press gave it cautious and mixed reviews.
The LP Program
The LP Program (“A Call for Economic Justice”) is a remarkable package (for the period) of anti-corporate/capital, pro-people/worker demands. Researched and drafted by LPA activists and consultants, the Program was approved by the 1996 convention and slightly revised by the 1998 convention. It consists of 16 points that can be broken into three separate, but overlapping, agendas. The first agenda is to rein in the power of capital by ending corporate abuse of trade, ending corporate welfare, ending corporate dominated elections, and making the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes. The second agenda is to greatly enhance the power and security of workers by guaranteeing a living wage job to all; protecting the right to organize, bargain, and strike (repeal Taft-Hartley, etc.); involving workers more in workplace quality and technology; improving their hours, benefits, and compensation. The third agenda deals with the broad public responsibilities of government: single-payer universal health system, free public education at all levels, an ending of discrimination and bigotry, and a public obligation to provide for the security and well being of all in such areas as infrastructure, transportation, environment, housing, and social security.
This package of demands may seem very radical in the present period. It is not unlike some socialist-leaning agendas of earlier European social democracy. It emulates some of the ambitions of Roosevelt’s New Deal and the progressive inclinations of the 60s. The LP program, done in some haste by a rag-tag of union and academic radicals, tried to accommodate to built-in union conservatism. Thus, the original program did not adequately cover such areas as racial/gender justice, housing, environment, and foreign policy. Following the lead of U. S. Labor Against the War, however, foreign policy finally was brought into focus with the February, 2003 statement “Labor Party Interim National Committee Statement Against War in Iraq.” (http://www.thelaborparty.org/a_iraq.html). Whatever its omissions, the LP program is deeply class based. Without equivocation, it calls the working class to struggle for its legal and moral rights and to mobilize political opposition to corporate capitalism. The program sets minimum quality-of-life rights and standards for all. It challenges the working class to take more control of the process of income production and workplace life. The program was written in the early Clinton years when the lot of the working class was steadily being eroded by ‘bipartisan’ congresses that generally represented the interests of capital. Reaganism, neo-liberalism, right-wing think tanks, and the Project for the New American Century had surely kicked in. The LP program called for a major restructuring of class, income, and the rights of workers. This was a direct ideological challenge to the maturing right-wing offensive.
The LP Structure and Process
Early LP activists saw a new working class party emerging from a small base of progressive unions (e.g. OCAW and UE). As that base grew and became viable, as the LP matured, other unions would give greater priority to the LP and dedicate more resources to it. Then increasingly more community groups and single-issue movements would be drawn into an enlarging system moving collectively toward fundamental political and social change. “Social movement unionism” is the term some use to summarize the process. Though U. S. labor history shows the great success of this strategy, the union movement basically abandoned it after World War Two in favor of ‘value added unionism’ (facilitating the work process) and the politics of accommodation. From 1987 to the present, Jobs with Justice - a union-community progressive formation - has experimented with social movement unionism, sometimes quite successfully. An adumbrated, and failed, version of this strategy was tried in the 1990s by the AFL-CIO’s Union Cities project that would function through the thousands of central labor councils throughout the country. In contrast, the LP envisioned building a large social movement of unions and the progressive community under the banner of the LP program and a future electoral capability.
The Mazzocchi people wanted a party with eventual divisions that corresponded to legal voting boundaries (national, state, county, city, precinct, etc.), reflecting the model of a traditional political party. Though the founders of the LP (mostly union functionaries) were not inclined toward a slam-dunk electoral capability, they still hoped that an electoral-type geographical structure would be formed at the founding convention. The LPA bodies that preceded the founding convention, however, were something akin to left affinity groups, some at the workplace, others in the community. Their purpose was to agitate and organize for a new working class party. Most of these groups had created loose geographically based structures with recognized leaders. Their delegates came to the convention with an identity more local than national. Though representing a jerry-built system of near-phantom LP groups, they successfully lobbied to be grandfathered into the new party as community-based chapters ranging in scope from the region or state to the small city levels. Convention delegates returned home in June, 1996 fired up to expand or create LP units in their unions and geographic spaces. Many drew up constitutions and by-laws that approximated union models.
The party’s Interim National Council at its peak consisted of delegates from the 10 international/national affiliated unions, along with delegates from other labor bodies, worker-supportive organizations, and the chapters. The party tried to achieve a national leadership balance reflecting the nation’s workplaces and population, so the INC’s composition continued to expand and diversify in the early years. Some participants at the founding convention (e.g. National Welfare Rights Union, Kensington Welfare Rights Union) insisted, with some force and success, that the LP leadership include representatives from groups that struggle for the poorer non-unionized sections of the working class. Then in 1999, under pressure from the community chapters, five regional chapter representatives were seated on the INC, each being given 1/5 of one vote. Previously, the community chapters were hardly acknowledged formally and not listed in the Labor Party Press. Notwithstanding limited resources, the National did make an effort to manage and facilitate the growing complex of LP organizations. Three regional organizers (Mid-Atlantic, New England, and Pacific) were put in place. The national office did its best to respond to requests from the grassroots.
From the beginning, the founding unions controlled LP decision making and policy, and provided necessary finance. I believe the better side of union democracy and philosophy was expressed in the development of the LP. Some disagreeing elements, both inside and outside the union loops, complained that key unions like OCAW and UE had unfair influence in general and excessive voting power at the three national conventions (1996, 1998, and 2002). On the other side, these unions provided necessary party building resources and motivation as they risked further alienation in a period of reaction and union decline. They showed flexibility in absorbing the old LPA bodies and embracing worker-supportive organizations in 1996. In 1998 the leading unions gave their blessing to an electoral policy and a national organizing structure that promised to go deeply into the grass roots. But the unions’ internal LP dynamics and structural configurations always were murky areas to many of us. Hundreds of union bodies officially endorsed or affiliated with the LP, but it never was clear how the internal process worked, what the structures looked like, and if or how unions would coalesce with the community. It was essentially a top-down operation. With notable exceptions like OCAW and UE, it appeared that most national affiliated unions failed to filter their LP policies and plans down to lower bodies. Since unionists commonly constituted over 70 percent of a community LP membership, it was natural for them to be the chapter’s officers or role models. Meetings frequently were held in union halls, but seldom seemed to be sponsored or organized by a union.
The 50 or so geographic LP bodies (urban, regional, and state) were relatively autonomous and marginally democratic. Spread throughout the country, they hypothetically embodied and crisscrossed the unions in their space. They were burdened by the lack of a national plan for their organization and development. Clearly, the National lacked funds to dedicate to the complex task of building at the community level. The National was sometimes condemned as having a lackluster attitude, while others at the local level were pleased at not being micromanaged from Washington. The National focused more on union mobilization and recruitment on the assumption that resource growth from the union base (finance and personnel) eventually could be funneled to the LP bodies outside the union structure. As the national convention of 1998 approached, many party activists, experiencing the dissonance that accompanies ambiguous structure, were ready for a formal restructuring of the LP. The two years since the founding convention showed growth in party numbers, party organizations, and slowly increasing public acceptance. This growing complex had to be somehow managed more efficiently, guidelines for the community bodies had to be developed, and the electoral question had to be resolved. Though less dramatic than the 1966 convention, the 1988 convention produced some clever and rational resolutions that were hoped would begin a successful restructuring process.
Resolution Two (“Change the Party Structure to Organize Faster and Meet New Responsibilities”) spoke directly to the issues of structure and organizing, and was strategically creative. Resolution Two said, “Party organization must go to where our constituency live and work. Very few people will seek out the Party if it is distant and inconvenient to them. Consequently, the base unit of the Party, its recruiting and organizing edge is the local organizing committee. A Labor Party organizing committee should be easy to form and administer, accessible and convenient to our constituency, and able to directly talk, recruit and mobilize people face-to-face. This Party places organizing above all else.”
Union affiliates were encouraged to have “a Labor Party steward on every job, a Labor Party committee in every workplace and local union.” The chapters had to decide if they would try to meet the new requirement of 250 members to continue chapter status, of if they would opt into the new structural identity called the local organizing committee (LOC). A solid number of chapters decided to go through the difficult process of designing a medium term strategic plan to meet requirements of the National. Some chapters just opted for LOC status. Meanwhile, a special INC committee headed by Ed Bruno (New England organizer) reviewed chapter plans for approval and made recommendations for change. Since the 1998 convention had approved electoral capability, the Bruno committee pushed strongly for chapters’ geographical identity being based on congressional districts (or associated zip codes). The party finally had come back full circle to the early LPA days when Mazzocchi’s preference was for a party based on electoral districts.
Whether in unions or the community, the local organizing committee concept was brilliant. It continued the solid theory-practice legacy of union and community organizing that has stood the test of time. By the end of 1999 four LOC bodies were granted charters by the National and over 20 LOCs were in formation. However, organizing an LOC was a mighty task that required more guidance and resources than were available from a party fumbling for survival in an increasingly reactionary national milieu. Another 1998 convention resolution complemented the one that set up the LOC structure. Called the “LP Style of Work,” this resolution in part said, “Whereas, the only method open to us is to move beyond “politics as usual,” bringing millions of ordinary people into the fight for a new political agenda and that organizing – disciplined, nitty-gritty, face-to-face organizing – is the Labor Party style of work.” Each LP member was challenged to recruit another person (workmate, friend, family, neighbor), allowing the party to increase geometrically. If the local organizing committee (both in unions and communities) had become joined with the “each one recruit one” mandate, the party might have grown considerably. But other factors obviously were operating that prevented this from happening.
For present purposes, the ‘left’ is defined as those persons who believe that some form of socialist or cooperative society is necessary to regulate (or abolish) capitalism, to redistribute wealth, and to protect and nourish the working class (the term ‘progressive’ may or may not include this definition). Tens of hundreds of the left around the country became LP activists, however short the time. They brought to the party extensive skills and knowledge that generally belong to those with a left background. They were a remarkable mix of independents and representatives from nearly every left tendency (revolutionary, socialist, anarchist, communist, social democratic, etc.) Nearly all had some exposure to Marxist or socialist thought and strongly endorsed the LP’s class-based, control-the-corporations approach. Though LP literature never mentioned capitalism, socialism, or imperialism (illustrating today’s left language laundering), these concepts nevertheless flooded the consciousness of LP activists.
A number were past or present devotees of various left groups or theoretical tendencies, a potentially divisive situation. They brought some long-standing animosities and disagreements to supposedly-neutral LP territory. In fact, it appeared that the LP served as an imperfect vehicle for compromise or reconciliation among those who would be left antagonists. The LP targeted a class enemy with an imperial foreign policy, though not in so many words. This political declaration promoted temporary unity (or lesser conflict) among those who otherwise may have engaged in sectarian bickering. Many left LP activists were challenged with the task of building a new radical party from the ground up, a new party that embraced both unions and community organizations. Thus, they dedicated their abundant energy and organizing skills (much coming from seasoned union organizers) to this mighty task.
This is not to say that tension, distrust, caution, or jealousy did not exist; indeed, most LP bodies likely experienced these quasi-paranoid symptoms, which are so common in the U. S. left, and which are to be expected in a predominately capitalist political culture which exerts enormous conformity pressure on citizens. Contradictorily, the generalized ‘left’ also has a deep internal love and sense of extended family membership that is based on a fairly similar world view and political strategy. And this is what drew large numbers of the left to the LP and allowed a reasonable degree of communication and tactical cooperation. However, working together to build a new left political project in a right-wing day and age, without adequate organization and strategic plans, suggested a recipe for confusion, if not disaster. Some left activists were charged with lurking on the edges to recruit LP members into their ‘parent’ group. The charter of the reportedly 1000-member Metro New York chapter was pulled sometime in 2000 because of alleged business improprieties, but it was generally speculated that age-old sectarian struggles were being played out. Party critics asserted that this was another case of ‘Trots’ or ‘Stalinists’ or ‘Anarchists’ or agents of some kind just performing their usual destructive behavior. However applicable in one sense, that is too simplistic an explanation. Of greater importance was the immense and difficult challenge of building a new class-based party with inadequate resources, no practical experience, a relatively hostile union ‘establishment,’ a cynical electorate – all affected by the on-rushing right-wing behemoth.
Of all U. S. institutions, the House of Labor has been the most vibrant and viable agent of change on behalf of the working class. The centuries-old struggle of workers to improve their lot and change society has affected law, wealth distribution, and quality of life. The union movement, born in the U.S., was radical, strong in numbers and dedication, proud of its history, in possession of resources, and skilled in organizing. Though union strengths and attributes were deteriorating by the time the LP was conceptualized, a labor party political alternative made sense to many. It would pursue the long tradition of labor parties in the U. S. which, in certain times past, had made a considerable difference. Surely, it was thought, there was a great need for a workers’ party, so why not give it a shot?
Early on, Mazzocchi and associates stirred some radical ripples at all levels of organized labor, quite an extraordinary thing in the conservative 90s. With patience and persuasion they brought the LP vision and program to the progressive wing of the House of Labor. They paved the LP way in many union bodies, including those as diverse as the American Federation of Government Employees (federal), Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way (railroad), United Mine Workers, and California Nurses Association. Since a small left-progressive core exists in numerous unions, it is understandable that several hundred union bodies officially affiliated (provided money) with the LP or endorsed it (no money necessary). With varying levels of steadfastness, these unions responded to the LP vision and program, and provided most of the initial recruits for the LP project. Many were experienced union builders or active in social/economic justice struggles. One-half to three-quarters of chapter-based LP members were rank and file unionists, but few upwardly mobile union functionaries spent the $20 to join the party.
A strong feature of local LP work was street support for union demonstrations, strikes, and organizing drives. The more hardy and dedicated would integrate LP banners and flyers with the union ones, or set up LP tables at union affairs for advertising and recruitment purposes. This did not endear the LP to some union bureaucrats whose instructions to ‘leave the LP alone’ came directly from their national. LP unionists often were confused whether their main public identity should be LP or union. Many LP unionists also were officers of union locals or delegates to central labor councils, thus affording a communication flow between the LP and union bodies. LP meetings and business practices generally followed union traditions, and many chapter meetings were held in union halls.
Some party builders supported initiatives in unorganized workplaces where disgruntled workers were ready to form or join a union (surveys in unorganized workplaces have shown that up to one-half of the workers would join a union if one were available). In some cases, LP activists linked unorganized workers with seemingly appropriate union functionaries in hopes of beginning an organizing process that might lead to NLRB recognition. It is my impression that few of these cases were successful, partly due to labor’s lack of resources and partly because the LP was not sufficiently trusted as the go-between. Greater success emerged from the early-‘90s inception of a non-majority unionization thrust in which NLRB certification was not the absolute goal. For example, Southern-based Black Workers for Justice (BWJ) provided workplace organizing models that sought community alliances, a form of social movement unionism. BWJ also tendered its wisdom to the LP in the party’s early formative days.
Information on LP development in the unions did not filter down meaningfully through party channels. It never was certain whether this was because of underdeveloped administration, lack of resources, privileged information, shortage of information, little to report, or confusion on how and what to communicate. The typical on-the-ground LP activist found the union element of the LP to be a relatively unknown quality and quantity. All the while, the Labor Party Press reported larger numbers of endorsing or affiliating labor bodies, until finally the number of represented workers exceeded two million as we entered the 21st Century.
Perhaps there was an element of grandiloquence in these figures, but there is little doubt that many left-progressive union functionaries, applying the LP style of work, were inching the party forward in diversified union contexts. Thousands of active rank and file were being reminded that, to quote labor scholar Nelson Lichtenstein, “---the fate of American labor is linked to the power of the ideas and values that sustain it” (State of the Union, Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 275). Labor scholars also were promoting independent labor politics. Michael Yates wrote, “Labor’s need is to develop a politics of its own, an independent politics, one to which it holds no matter what policies are promoted by the two parties of capital” (Why Unions Matter, (Monthly Review Press, 1998, p. 103).
The more progressive union leaders privately acknowledged the importance of the LP concept, but they were plagued by their own organizational problems emerging from objective domestic and world conditions unfolding for the last 50 years. The chief, and well known, conditions include globalized ownership, finance, production, and services; development in technology; anti-unionism and class inequality; the ‘rush to the bottom’ for cheap labor; a labor-management ‘team’ approach to work organization; and a generalized anti-worker, pro-corporate conservatism that permeates all classes and institutions. Tony Mazzocchi’s final written statement (July, 2002) just weeks before his death from pancreatic cancer noted, “Unions are besieged. They are losing ground on every front. They are consumed with day-to-day struggles. Except for a very few, they are in retreat. Several prominent labor leaders have told me that while they agree with the Labor Party ideologically, they have to be very pragmatic in this era. They fear losing access to politicians needed to help them survive.”
U. S. history shows that organized labor has experienced crises before and overcame them, but globalization and other trends makes labor’s struggles much tougher today. The industrial pluralism model of the 1950s (labor and management are equals) has little applicability as labor’s clout declines precipitously. Since corporate capitalism has been in a rate-of-profit crisis since the 1960s, the main agenda of its think tanks and political allies has been to slow or reverse the profit decline through policy and legal changes that effectively attack the U. S. (and world’s) working classes. Capital’s practices are well known: international agreements like NAFTA, outsourcing, anti-unionism, technological change, intensification of work, ‘bilateral’ relationships with government agencies, and ‘bipartisan’ pacts with the two parties of capital. Unlike most other countries, the U. S. working class has no political party to protect its interests. The negative impact on the working class and its organizations has been astounding.
It is well known that unions are fighting defensive rear guard actions regardless of their changed organizing priorities in the last 10 years that partly resulted from the 1995 change in AFL-CIO leadership. Union density (percent of the total labor force that is unionized) peaked at about 35 percent in 1950, fell to 29 percent in 1973, reduced to about 16 percent in 1991, and hovers just above 11 percent today. With a continuously enlarging ‘official’ workforce of now over 130 million (80 percent of recent additions being in the lower paid service sector), there has been a fairly constant total of 16 million unionists for several decades. Though not an insubstantial number in terms of political action, workplace militancy of the past has been replaced with accommodation and retreat. A major indicator of this motion is the decreasing number of strikes over time. In 1970 there were 381 major work stoppages (over 1,000 workers) involving about two and one-half million workers and nearly 53 million days idle. The year 1985 saw just 54 strikes with 324,000 workers and seven million days idle. Today there are about 25 strikes annually involving less than 100,000 workers, and no more than one million days idle. We are in a state of relative workplace peace that benefits corporate capitalism to the profound detriment of the workers.
But nothing stands still for long. As corporate capital continues to consolidate, globalize, and gain power, organized labor searches for innovative strategies to challenge the corporate colossus; strategies that might arrest, if not reverse, the race to the bottom. The restructuring calls by SEIU and its affiliates in the now-defunct New Unity Partnership, along with similar calls from other unions, should guarantee a spirited gathering at the July, 2005 AFL-CIO convention. As corporations inevitably merge and consolidate across the world, so have the unions in individual countries. The continuing wave of union mergers in the past decade is intended to gain strategic leverage through streamlining operations, devoting more resources to organizing, and changing the density patterns. LP-founding OCAW (oil and chemical) merged several years ago with the paper workers to form PACE, which now has merged with the LP-friendly United Steelworkers to form the largest U. S. industrial union: United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union. Since each new merger tends to alter elements of the former unions, OCAW’s earlier priority to the LP has been watered down (not abandoned) in the absorption process. The results of labor’s current discontents and restructuring efforts remain to be seen. Mega unions with more muscle may emerge. There is an “upsurge” potential if unions ally with the community (see Dan Clawson, The Next Upsurge, Cornell University Press, 2003). Will the restructuring struggles and debates induce more unions (or more rank and file) to turn to the LP as an alternative to business as usual? A key question for present purposes, the answer may depend on the organizing perspective of the future LP.
The LP and the Community
One of the most challenging aspects of LP activism at its peak was outreach to non-union workers (some 88 percent of the labor force). The LP was based in the unions, and the great majority of members came from that source. But unions are a finite recruiting ground, especially if the leadership is hostile or neutral due to two-party loyalty. Many chapters tried to recruit broadly in their communities so as to achieve the critical mass needed for promotion of the LP vision and program, and successfully engage in any future electoral campaigns. What little public image the LP generated came from ‘newsworthy’ participation in local labor actions and community events.
When the idea of the LP began to percolate among left-progressive and radical groups in the early 90s, many were cautious about unions leading a new class-based movement. Social movement unionism, if thought of at all, was considered an artifact predating World War Two and mostly irrelevant in the modern period. People leading progressive and radical groups at the time were likely to have been at the early end of the boomer generation. ‘Red diaper babies’ (those counseled by a left-oriented family) seemed more open to the possibility of radical union action. Most radical community leaders, however, were skeptical. They were the products of specific race, gender, anti-war, environment, and class-based movements of the 60s and 70s in which unions participated weakly, if at all. Furthermore, certain errors and omissions of the earlier movements (e.g. weak class analysis, while male supremacy, inattention to the grass roots, inefficient organization) were carried forth into the 90s by many who had lost their revolutionary zeal, were tired or burnt out, or had made their peace with the establishment. Meanwhile, the right-wing onslaught continued to ravage the union movement and stifle progressive dissent.
Though the above scenario did not portend well for the formation of a new working class-based independent party, progressive things existed that encouraged optimism among early LP organizers. Critically important was the presence of thousands of 60s-70s activists who still tried to express their progressive instincts in social action or survival projects emerging from secular or faith contexts. They had experience, skills, and talent that might be directed towards a more class-based action. Along with a growing number of politicized youth, they focused on issues such as race, gender, poverty, urban decay, U. S. foreign policy, sweatshop labor, globalization, deindustrialization, and immigration. They constituted (and continue to constitute) the broader left-activist community with a deepening tactical appreciation for the principles of “think globally, act locally” or “all politics is local.” Many were attracted to the LP concept. As noted earlier, some groups (e.g. National Welfare Rights Union) insisted they be included in national LP policy making because they represented the poorest and underserved of the working class. At least nominally, several of these groups were accepted into the LP as worker-supportive organizations. This new category advanced the perception that the LP’s constituency was broadly working class, and not only based in the unions. A potentially important leap, the LP now could include diverse community groups that advocated for the rights of all workers (whether fully employed, partly employed, or unemployed) or fought for selected constituencies (racial, gender, etc.) that may have been historically underserved by the progressive movements.
Following the ’96 founding convention, the 28th Amendment campaign was the first serious effort to invigorate local LP units in their efforts to forge productive community ties. The National called upon the units to circulate petitions that proclaimed the need for a U. S. “constitutional guarantee to a job at a living wage.” (Point one in the LP 16-point program) Petitioning areas were to be defined neighborhoods or electoral precincts. Completed petitions were to be sent to the National and used at the local level for community organizing and agitation in local government. Since this was the party’s first grass roots campaign, most local units made some effort to research target neighborhoods, mobilize petitioning teams, retrieve voter or street lists, and activate a plan. Generally, lower income neighborhoods were chosen with reportedly quite high response rates. Not unexpectedly, the lower the neighborhood’s social class, the higher the rate of petition signing and the greater the acceptance of the LP idea.
The 28th Amendment campaign elicited widespread debate among party activists. One side questioned the feasibility of a campaign with a near-certainty of failure, one whose success ultimately would require friendly super majorities both in Congress and the states. Arguably, the view of a majority of LP activists was, “Let’s give it a try - this will be an educational, public relations vehicle.” A small group of chapters fully engaged the task, making contact with every household in their target areas and recruiting a modest number of new LP members. Some held post-petitioning social events to which every neighborhood household was invited, sometimes to a free dinner. But it was most difficult to consolidate these community ‘breakthroughs’ in the absence of National guidance, or without more developed local structure. Ironically, many LP activists were well versed in the methodologies of union and community organizing and could have applied their organizing skills to this campaign if only the organizers had been better organized. The campaign reminded us of textbook truisms, applicable both in union and community organizing: one-on-one contact, follow ups, consolidation. The quintessential door-to-door nature of the campaign, though strange or scary to many, was invaluable in showing community residents that the LP was serious. For a moment in time, the campaign overrode the dearth of door-to-door contact today caused by urban sprawl distances, smaller households, mall and computer shopping, and the caution of residents to strangers. The few door-to-door canvassers today are political functionaries (only at election time), faith-related devotees, local community improvement efforts, police-fire solicitations, and the occasional magazine or vacuum cleaner salesperson. One can only wonder how the party might have grown if the community-based 28th Amendment campaign had kept on course and the infant community groups spawned by it had been more ardently facilitated.
Local LP units that developed more rapidly had a mix of characteristics that bears brief examination. A unit’s development was generally defined in terms of membership growth. Except for short sign-up spurts on picket lines where striking workers got free LP memberships, few units met the National’s goal of continual doubling of the membership. Some units, however, did grow more heartily because they had the right mix of leadership qualities, were located in more congenial geographies, and appreciated the organizing principles of a union-community relationship. The leaders of such units devoted great amounts of personal time and financial resources to party building. They were respected citizens in their communities and unions and often had extensive organizing experience.
The more successful LP units also worked as closely as possible with friendly union bodies, cultural organizations, and social action groups in their region. Since each unit had unique demographics, history, and culture, considerable local autonomy was granted the units to develop program and a public image that suited their locales. Those units grew that adapted the LP “style of work” (one-on-one) in a panoply of community associations, movements, and customs. Those units grew that took seriously the early LP organizing assumption that “they won’t come to us, we must go to them.” This meant palpable participation in the strikes, parades, demonstrations, forums, cultural events, and committees of those community groups that were friendly (or not hostile) to the LP vision and program. Many units created banners, posters, flyers, web sites, and newsletters, some quite clever and professional looking. Units that grew provided speakers to classrooms, community associations, church groups, union meetings, public forums, and community service media. Some units were active participants with existing coalitions whose movements were complementary to elements of the LP program, such as health care. A few units coalesced with other political formations that mobilized for state and local electoral reform, for example Instant Runoff Voting. Since all this took money, growth units held fundraisers (bake sales, garage sales, musical performances, political speakers, etc.), passed the hat at LP-sponsored events, developed a ‘sustainer’ system of regular givers, and, of course, provided out-of-pocket dollars. Furthermore, substantial in-kind contributions came from friendly unions, churches, and community associations. This all was ‘out-of-the-book’ organizing.
The ‘Single-Issue’ Campaign Approach to Organizing
The 28th Amendment campaign faded from view within a year, to the satisfaction of LP activists who never bought into it. The 1998 national convention then chose three more ‘manageable’ campaigns from the 16-point program: Just Health Care (point 5), Free Public Higher Education (point 8), and Labor Law Reform (point 3). National leaders intended these campaigns to be organizing vehicles that might energize a faltering grass roots membership and boost the flagging recruitment rolls. For all intents and purposes, these were ‘single issue’ campaigns that were hoped to be widely embraced by the working class majority and therefore draw substantial numbers to the LP. To help accomplish this, campaign content embraced novel particulars that would be uniquely LP. So, the party leadership consulted with friendly progressive specialists from the academy, think tanks, and union staffs. Task forces and caucuses were formed that worked hard to design newer approaches to the longstanding problems of health care, education, and labor law.
Following the 1998 convention, the party formed an imaginative educational and cultural arm – the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute (DJDI) (www.thelaborparty.org), a 501 © (3) organization. The convention’s resolutions on health, education, and labor law became DJDI priorities, producing excellent scholarship and the beginnings of educational programs that were hoped would be integrated into grass roots campaigns. “Train-the-trainer” projects initiated by east coast task forces had some brief success, but did not percolate downward into the lower party units. Neither organization nor resources were available for this to happen. A necessary early step in party formation, the DJDI project was/is a radical think tank reflecting the successful union model of research and education on subjects of importance to the working class. To some, however, it symbolized party gravitation toward academic-type research and education while deemphasizing the tougher issues of grassroots party organizing. Surely, both were/are required for party development.
Turning to specifics of the LP’s three major campaigns, the ‘flagship’ campaign is Just Health Care (JHC), a program for comprehensive national, single-payer health insurance that approximates the Canadian system. The DJDI produced a rational JHC financing plan (http://www.justhealthcare.org) whose expenditures to provide cradle-to-grave coverage would be roughly equal to the $1.2 trillion spent on U. S. health care in 1999. Sources of JHC revenue would include the elimination of waste and profit in the private insurance sector, additional taxes on the rich and their financial transactions (about $290 billion), closing corporate tax shelter loopholes (about $60 billion), and a modest 5.5 percent payroll tax on all employers (about $252 billion). Nearly $200 billion would come from an ‘excess profits’ tax on employer health cost savings that would be used to subsidize the work, education, or retirement transition of some 1.25 million displaced administrative workers from the health care industry. JHC follows the philosophy of redistribution from the rich to the working class, which is articulated in point 8 of the LP program: “Make the Wealthy Pay Their Fair Share of Taxes.” The need for socialized health care in the U. S. is abundantly evident and the majority of Americans support this in principle. Thousands of activists in dozens of single-payer organizations agitate and educate. The LP used sound logic to prioritize JHC and it dedicated significant resources to the campaign. A major goal was to solicit one million signatures on JHC petitions with the purpose of raising national consciousness and being an entry point to activist and working class communities. By-the-book organizing was encouraged (one-on-one, house parties, community and union forums, etc.). Some LP units tried hard to implement the campaign, but it is unclear how many signatures were obtained or forums were held. Today a few chapters give JHC prime attention, especially the Alachua County Labor Party in Gainesville, FL. In general, LP units have devoted little serious attention to joining the many single-payer coalitions around the country. Perhaps a certain loftiness or jealousy of program has prevented this. Or maybe single-payer groups are cautious of alliances with a labor-based party.
The second active LP campaign is ‘Free Higher Education’ (FHE) (http://www.freehighered.org) which would provide free tuition at all public colleges and universities. Such a public subsidy is similar to the post-World War Two G. I. Bill of Rights and the pre-1970’s policy of the City University of New York system. In 1996 some $23 billion was spent for tuition in public institutions while today it approaches double that figure, leaving the majority of graduates with an inordinate debt. If FHE were in place, college attendance might double or triple, requiring a public subsidy in excess of $100 billion. Rather than new taxes, FHE would be financed by reducing tax cuts to the rich, closing corporate tax breaks, continuing the estate tax, and taking from the bloated military budget. These revenue sources are consistent with the tax-the-rich elements of the LP program, but they are repugnant to the power elite. LP leaders like Adolph Reed have publicized this campaign extensively with the aim of building a popular base. It soundly resonates in many academic audiences and is broadly accepted by the public. However, FHE poses a structural problem arising from the assumption that anyone qualified to attend a public institution could do so free. Without other structural changes (e.g. a legal right to a job with a living wage) the labor market could not absorb at current wages the likely avalanche of graduates. Labor supply would far exceed workplace demand, thus forcing wages down and increasing labor competitiveness. Only a finite number of physicians, engineers, programmers, accountants, managers, teachers, etc. are absorbable in the current labor market, without even considering the diminishing demand for trained labor because of advancing technology, outsourcing, speed-up, and the outright meanness of capital.
The third active LP campaign deals with Labor Law Reform (LLR). It results from the 1998 national convention’s “Workplace Bill of Rights” resolution. Close to the heart of the Labor Party idea, LLR is one of the more radical ‘single-issue’ elements of the 16-point program. Unlike the expensive health care and education projects, LLR is relatively cost free to government, requiring ‘merely’ changes in labor law and its administration. However, its potential cost to corporate interests would be monumental since it challenges an entrenched labor legal foundation that greatly restricts workplace rights to organize, bargain, and strike, thus greatly contributing to inequality in the U. S. One goal of LLR is repeal of the notorious Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and retrieval of the total package of worker rights that have been guaranteed by the federal government since the Wagner Act of 1935 and over successive years. Another LLR goal is to turn the pro-corporate courts and administrative agencies (e.g. National Labor Relations Board) toward a pro-worker stance. Meeting these goals through traditional electoral politics in today’s ‘bipartisan’ climate is both impossible and contrary to the LP’s logic of political independence. Thus, the LP commissioned a task force of labor lawyers and scholars to develop a “human rights” approach to labor freedom and democracy based on a mix of the U. S. Constitution’s first amendment (free speech and assembly) and the 13th amendment (prohibition of slavery). This would replace the currently used legal foundation based on the Constitution’s article 1, section 8 (regulation of interstate commerce). The idea was not new - labor lawyers were discussing it long before the Wagner Act. But LP stalwarts like Ed Bruno, Jim Pope, and Peter Kellman rekindled the idea and broadly disseminated it throughout the labor community (“Toward a New Labor Law” - http://campaignforworkerrights.org/paper.html). Though well received by many labor advocates, the catch is that some dauntless volunteers would have to be organized into resistance actions that would result in their jailing and eventually court test cases. Some lawyers believe that in today’s anti-worker climate an attempt to get the judicial system to reinterpret the constitutional rights of workers would prove fruitless. Rather, the time-honored working class movement must be the vehicle for change.
The three premier LP campaigns discussed above require some concluding thoughts. Recall, these are ‘issue’ campaigns with specific institutional targets (health, education, and labor law). Taken from the 16-point program, the campaigns were designed to promote reforms on single issues while promoting the LP in general. It has been alleged that the campaigns helped sidetrack (or replace) the task of building an independent class-conscious party with the long-range mission of taking power. Concentrating limited resources on specific issues obviously has merit, but it is debatable whether the single issue approach is the principle vehicle to build a new, radical party. Experience in the Just Health Care campaign is illustrative. A health movement was in place before the LP was formed and numerous non-labor social action groups worked hard to bring the single-payer concept to the public’s attention. The LP had new approaches which activists proudly guarded, but little attention was given to joining coalitions of the like minded to help swell the general movement, influence its program content, and sew the LP seed. The LP’s health initiative had little impact on the declining fortunes of the party. Let us not forget that by the late 90s the progressive movement was precipitously sliding downhill while the right-wing juggernaut was in high gear. The success of any progressive single-issue campaign depends on a radical change in political mobilization, transformation of governments, and taxation of the rich. This was not about to happen with right-wing institutional control that made certain the majority of the electorate would be either supportive of or apathetic to the right-wing agenda.
The Electoral Question
The definition of a ‘party’ ranges widely, from being simply a pressure group, to directing the policies of a government. A political party struggles for power, and in a democracy that struggle supposedly is expressed at the ballot box. Weather or not to be an active electoral party has been a burning issue throughout the short life of the LP. This widely debated question has been the source of unease and rancor throughout the LP system. Being close to organized labor and desiring labor’s support, the founding leadership strongly discouraged early electoral activity. Shortly after the 1996 founding convention, the energized Buffalo, NY chapter went into an electoral mode, causing the National to revoke the chapter’s charter. This had a decided impact on the electoral ambitions of other chapters. It still is unclear whether leaders like Tony Mazzocchi and Bob Wages ever envisioned the LP being anything but an agitation-propaganda vehicle. Critics say that the closeness of LP founders to the organized labor bureaucracy and its pro-Democratic Party policy tarnished their political judgment and induced inactivity on the independent electoral front. Adding further complexity, unionists have not been solid Democrat: nearly four in 10 voted Republican in the 2000 presidential election.
LP supporters who wanted an electoral policy undoubtedly numbered in the thousands and came mostly from left and union democracy backgrounds. Many were spunky and free-spoken delegates to the 1996 founding convention who co-mingled with representatives of the more electoral-leaning founding unions – ILWU (west coast) and United Electrical Workers. Though this convention turned down an electoral resolution, the ground was laid for the formation of an electoral commission that came up with a draft of an Electoral Strategy. This was hotly debated, then accepted, at the 1998 founding convention (http://www.thelaborparty.org/a_electo.html) and is in many respects a very advanced ‘third party’ electoral approach. It declares the LP’s independence of the corporations and their Democrat and Republican political representatives, and it aspires to the working class majority taking political power. LP candidates for office and LP elected officials would be strictly accountable to the party membership and platform - before, during, and between elections. They would run solely as LP candidates (no fusion with other parties), and the LP would not endorse any non-LP candidates. Also very advanced was the strategy of “building solidarity in our communities, workplaces and unions.” In effect, the electoral process would cast an LP unit into a bridging role between various constituent entities and perhaps as a catalyst for their interaction and unity.
Also very advanced in the electoral strategy was the set of strict criteria for running candidates and the central control of the Interim National Council in granting electoral permission. To be even considered, LP units had to demonstrate a high level of local political sophistication along with a financial, organizational, membership, and external-support base that would nearly guarantee the chances of electoral success. In 1998-9 a handful of chapters undertook the daunting task of creating strategic plans - with electoral goals and timelines – which were submitted to a national restructuring committee charged with bringing the party’s architecture more into line with the U.S. congressional boundary and zip code structures. Responding with reasonable promptness, the restructuring committee offered helpful suggestions that might have proven useful if the chapters had been better organized and financed, and if the party’s fortunes were not by now rapidly declining.
Several audacious chapters explored preliminary alternatives to pave the way for full electoral campaigns. A couple successful nonbinding local ballot initiatives (e.g. health care and education) were fronted by LP advocates. A few outreach-oriented chapters joined local coalitions that wanted to get around the regressive winner-take-all system by promoting electoral reform such as instant runoff voting (IRV). In 1999, for example, the Albuquerque LP chapter worked hard with representatives of unions, the Greens, the Democratic Party, and community groups to get an IRV constitutional amendment passed by the New Mexico legislature. It passed in the senate (thanks to some friendly Democrats) and failed in the house, but the modest success taught us the value of coalitions on issues where unity can be found. Some LP chapter leaders ran in non-partisan local contests on progressive platforms and received substantial votes, all enabled by progressive coalition. Essentially labor-greens, their forays into electoral politics were intended to gain experience for that eventual day when their LP unit was adequately developed for serious electoral activity.
But then, along came Ralph Nader who altered the ‘third party’ balance. Nader, who had a long relationship with Tony Mazzocchi on common progressive causes, had addressed both the 1996 and 1998 conventions of the LP. He counseled the LP to run candidates in the 90 percent of congressional districts where there is little or no opposition. Then Mazzocchi, already impressed by Jesse Ventura’s win of the Minnesota governorship, was a keynoter at the 2000 Green Party national convention in Denver where Nader was nominated as presidential candidate. This reportedly further alienated the LP from organized labor which disliked the Greens for their alleged spoiling of Democratic candidates that labor supported. A further complication resulted from the endorsement of Nader by two LP founding unions - United Electrical Workers and the California Nurses Association. The LP was further weakened by an exodus of many staunch activists to work on the Nader campaign. Many of them never returned to the LP – another nail in the coffin.
Many loyal but critical LP activists claim the lack of electoral activity to be one of the main causes of the party’s decline. They look back with awe to earlier times when local labor organizations across the country were forming parties independent of their national unions and the two major parties. These labor parties were fielding candidates and often winning office. With some good cause, the loyal LP critics believed that the very act of running candidates would bring many new members into the party and help it grow. Some loyal critics pointed to the various electoral successes of the Green Party at the local level (city councils, school boards, etc.) as evidence that a dedicated body of ‘third party’ volunteers could win elections. Many in the pro-electoral camp advocated running LP candidates only in those districts that would not compete with a candidate endorsed by organized labor. Opponents of electoralism, also with good cause, worried that the LP would lose complete credibility if a candidate won only the two or three percent of the vote of the ‘typical’ third party. The debate never was resolved since no LP body ever developed the wherewithal to become electoral.
The Future: Building Local Community-Labor
We have reached a summing-up point where some conclusions need to drawn that may bear upon the future of the LP and the U. S. working class political movement. As the contradictions facing the world’s ruling classes deepen (rate of profit, capitalist competition, advancing technology, peak oil, workers’ resistance, etc.), the probabilities increase that the right wing offensive will accelerate, likely edging toward some form of ‘modern’ fascism. I assume the quality of life of the U. S. and world’s working classes will continue to deteriorate. I further assume that left to its own devices, and short of an unlikely economic cataclysm and/or mass uprising in the medium term, the LP will continue in its present semi-somnolent form. The crying need for an independent working class party requires attention to ideas on organizing that emerge from the unique LP experiences as applied to today’s objective social conditions in the U. S.
My simple structural conclusion is that LP chapters should be bridges/links/catalysts between left-progressive labor and left-progressive community. This ‘simple’ conclusion embodies complex components and dynamics, not unlike those experienced by organizations like Jobs with Justice, Black Workers for Justice, ACORN, the Working Families Party (New York), and even an element of the AFL-CIO. These organizations incorporate some aspects of ‘social movement unionism’ in their efforts to facilitate a solidarity between organized labor and community groups that would mobilize resistance to the right wing and promote the working class agenda. Other more or less spontaneous efforts also could be cited: the student anti-sweatshop/pro-immigrant movement, the living wage movement, U. S. Labor Against the War, Million Worker March Committee, and hundreds of local community-labor alliances. They show us a deeply embedded tendency in some sectors of the U. S. working class to collectively participate in making progressive change.
Community-labor alliances to resist reaction and build working class power are profoundly logical in urban America. The nearly 300 million people in the U. S. are separated into over 100 million households with major clusters in about 150 urban centers. Women outnumber men. People of color and foreign birth are approaching one-third of the population. Large or small pockets of poverty and deterioration are found in each urban cluster. The clusters are centers of production and commerce, with over six million business establishments and tens of thousands of government agencies providing jobs to a U. S. workforce of over 130,000,000, split into thousands of occupations. This seemingly complex situation becomes more simplified and manageable if we think locally, and consider that most workers both work and live in the same proximate geographical area. They participate in the culture of a generalized urban-area (Detroit, Sandusky, Santa Fe, Oakland, Miami, Little Rock, etc.). They also participate in diverse neighborhood cultures with organizations based on varieties of religion, leisure time activities, ethnicity, education, class, etc.
Even though the average worker commutes some 30 miles to the job, that worker goes home at night with the good or bad of the day’s work experience still in mind. Conversely, that worker takes family, financial, and other personal issues to the job. It is a two-way, symbiotic relationship that unites work with home in every worker’s mind. An individual’s mental unity of work and home is largely based on class and ethnicity, and to some extent region of the country. That means simply that people with similar demographics are more likely to find comfort and identity with each other since they are forced into relatively homogeneous job levels, living conditions, and social respect. This then produces small group clusters of similar people at work, usually based on occupational level, and sometimes from the same neighborhood. At the neighborhood level, organizations and informal groups are composed of broadly similar people. These social collectivities, whether on the job or in the neighborhood, are deeply relevant to organizing a future workers’ movement, and to the LP in particular if it is to develop beyond its current Rip van Winkle mode. This all suggests three organizational dimensions to LP revitalization: (1) the LP chapter as a bridge-building catalyst between work and community (2) organizing in the workplace (3) organizing in the community.
Revitalized chapters must address the interlocked issues of goals, representation, leadership, structure, outreach, and finance. Though difficult to the extreme, some form of strategic plan must be worked out to bring these issues coherently together into an operational plan that works. Early LP documents properly challenged the party to facilitate a process leading to the working class taking power. Since this call never was spelled out, it becomes a cavalier slogan in the absence of plans and resources at the local level (the main interest of this paper) to build a critical mass of workers needed to take power. There are two main approaches to the concept of power.
First, power can be sought to influence the political status quo through mass resistance and protest, with the hope that the gatekeepers will be forced to see the light, back off, and revise law and policy. This is a necessary first stage of power for purposes of protection of the working class. It is essentially a resistance approach to extant government bodies which, for the most part, function as executive committees for corporate capital. Workers’ resistance to private sector outrages is comparatively ineffective today because of Taft-Hartley, an anti-worker NLRB, trade laws, outsourcing, union weakness, and other well known factors. The process of gaining working class power to influence the status quo (Democrats and Republicans) must operate within the structures and ground rules of the status quo. The LP certainly supports all tactical reforms on behalf of the working class, but the strategic goal is to be an independent party of the working class, and begin to set new ground rules of, by, and for that class - “The bosses have two parties, now we have one of our own”.
The second main approach to power has to do with electoral politics, the ultimate source of power in a so-called democracy. In “The Electoral Question” I noted that the LP had become an electoral party in 1998 with stiff requirements for running candidates. No chapter became organized or strong enough to do more than crawl or dream on this matter. Still, electorialism was at the tip of consciousness of most LP activists, a source of individual anxiety and organizational struggle, and arguably a factor in the party’s decline. Future chapters must learn from this, jettison anti-electoral prejudice, and build an electoral goal (however long range) into their strategic plans. Without a serious re-look at the chapter’s role in catalyzing union-community coalition, an electoral future has a dubious outlook. To achieve the growth and prosperity needed to engage in electoral politics, LP chapter governing boards must include a true mix of workplace and homeplace leadership that functions in an ultra-democratic structure.
To build the LP in the workplace, a chapter’s main task would be to facilitate the building of ‘workplace organizing committees’ as called for in early LP documents and practice. Workplaces already unionized would be encouraged to affiliate with the LP. Let us not forget that unions generally possess resources and organizing skills that may not be equaled among the myriad of other working class organizations. Non-union workplaces would be encouraged to form a pro-LP union (NLRB or non-majority), perhaps with the organizing support of the LP chapter. Assisting in organizing the unorganized at a particular work site would be a relatively novel role for LP chapters. Any successes might elicit greater respect for the LP from the rank and file and even the union establishment.
To increase the LP’s outreach to the community, we must heed the earlier national call to build “Local Organizing Committees” (LOC), and we must draw from the experience of several dozen past LOC building efforts around the country. LOCs could be at the heart of LP rebirth because they would be nestled in the urban heartland of America, where people live, play, worship, and intimately interact in some form of institutional life. LOCs would operate where the vast majority of people are not unionists, not union-conscious, and often are anti-union. This is a great challenge, but also a great opportunity. It is imaginable that LOCs could be set up in a diversity of socio-economic neighborhoods within the jurisdiction of an LP chapter. The ‘natural’ scheme and structure of a community (religious and leisure groups, block clubs, community development corporations, etc.) must be brought into play. LOCs would be greatly differentiated by income, color, ethnicity, and culture, all being factors that historically have contributed to working class separation, not unity. The local chapter, therefore, should be the central force that redirects attitudes away from extant prejudices and toward political unity around the LP program and goals. Such a unifying role could only succeed if each LOC were satisfactorily represented on the chapter’s governing board where democratic communication and collective interests would be emphasized. Those LOCs with objectively lower economic and social status likely should receive more chapter services and resources (a form of affirmative action).
The revitalization of local LPs relies first on the hard work of a core of inspirational leaders from the workplace and homeplace who directly represent various working class sectors. These leaders then must mobilize a network of volunteers who wish to resist and reverse the ascendance of corporate capital, and who will dedicate consequential time, energy, and money to LP building. Changing social and demographic trends could work to the benefit of LP organizing. For example, an immense population of retirees will come from the boomer generation’s swelling of an already aging population. A great number of these ‘senior citizens’ are healthy, energized, skilled, and have free time and discretionary money. Untold thousands are emotionally and ideologically prepared to work on LP projects, as demonstrated in early LP experience. Logically however, many are bored or depressed by their perceived inefficacy in the face of the right-wing takeover and a languid worker-left movement. They await LP outreach.
The LP’s future fortunes partly lie in the fact that the U. S. is a nation of volunteers. According to Monthly Labor Review (August, 2003), some 60 million adults (age 16+) perform some kind of unpaid volunteer activity in any given year. This produces staggering numbers of labor hours and value (estimated by http://www.independentsector.org as equivalent to some nine million full-time employees and nearly 240 billion dollars). Most of this is dedicated to non-political service (school, church, recreation, health, etc.), but the point is that the volunteering of labor is in the culture, and some could be directed to the LP. A considerable literature shows that work (physical-mental activity required to accomplish a task) is generic to human nature, and runs the real-life gamut from job to home to community. Political activism is also a form of work. Properly managed, it can give immense satisfaction and be good for mental and physical health according to recent research. Chapters might also explore the feasibility of using interns from local institutions seeking on-the-job experience for their constituents. Of course, LP organizational maturity and proper supervision would have to be present for this to work.
Since the LP needs lots of money for program development, we also should remember that Americans give billions upon billions annually to their favorite causes or organizations. There is no doubt that many households took in lots of money in the second half of the 20th Century. Though the act of giving is in the culture, large amounts of readily available money cannot be expected to be directed to ‘radical’ groups like the LP. It will take creative financial management and keen business-political integrity to gain the needed respect from donors to swell LP coffers. People are attracted to efficiently operating organizational systems. Past experience of some LP chapters (and the left-progressive community) provides successful fundraising models, including systems of ‘sustainers’ who make regular monthly contributions, fundraisers of many varieties, passing the hat, etc. The recent internet experience in fundraising (e.g. MoveOn.org and numerous right-wing groups) should not be ignored. To really grow, LP chapters must design plans that include hired staff, once sufficient organizational maturity has been reached.
I shall conclude with this thought: organize locally, think nationally. This bottom-up approach has been arguably part of the organizing philosophy of the Labor Party project at least since the 1998 convention. Long range LP development can only flow from dedicated organizing at the workplace and homeplace, inspired and coordinated by local chapters. As local chapters grow and accomplish political successes, more resources would flow to the National LP. More unions and worker-supportive organizations would affiliate and more individuals would join. More resources would be made available to expand the planning and organizing functions of the National party. We must try our best to support and nourish the Labor Party.