Labor Advocate Online
Our Day Will Come
by Bill Onasch
Presentation to the annual state council meeting of the Ohio State Labor Party, Cleveland, September 29, 2007
I have nothing but fond memories of past trips to Cleveland. My first visit was in 1965, attending what proved to be a small but pivotal conference in building the mass movement against the Vietnam war, chaired by the legendary AJ Muste. My most recent visit was the US Labor Against the War assembly last December. Jerry Gordon seemed to be in the thick of both those events–and a lot in the four decades in between.
Perhaps the most inspiring labor movement event I have ever attended also took place in this city a little over eleven years ago–the Labor Party Founding Convention with over 1400 enthusiastic participants. It was our hope then we had finally turned the corner in the long detour of the labor movement, wandering more than the forty years of Moses and the Israelites in the desert of class collaboration politics.
I don’t have to tell you that hope is still far from being realized. The Labor Party has not yet become the party of the labor movement. Far from it. But I need hardly remind you there has never been a greater objective need for such a party. Let’s begin by looking at the challenges organized workers face just on the collective bargaining front.
First and foremost is, of course, health care. In my opinion, our unions made a terrible postwar strategic blunder when they tied basic benefits to employer contracts. In addition to the obvious draw back of losing your benefits if you lose your job, in the best of times a significant part of the negotiated compensation package went to providing profits to health insurance companies with money that could have otherwise been applied to wages.
But these are not the best of times. Health care costs have run amok. Over the last six years premiums for family coverage have gone up an astounding 78 percent–nearly four times the increase in wages. Neither the unions nor individual employers have much direct influence over these cost surges. That has led to all workers accepting a combination of curtailed services, increasing deductibles and copays, and diverting ever more of the compensation package away from wages into the coffers of the health care robber barons. And now we have the growing uncertainty of the VEBAs. This process will not be stopped on the picket line.
But I don’t need to say much about this issue here. One of the Labor Party success stories is the key role the Ohio State Party has played in the launching and building of SPAN Ohio. The rest of us follow your work closely and try to learn from it.
That other most basic benefit, pensions, continue to take big hits. Our kids will likely never see a defined benefit pension that our unions opted for rather than fighting to expand Social Security. Those retired UAW members getting 3000 a month on top of their Social Security, accompanied by a top of the line health care plan to supplement inadequate Medicare, are an endangered species. Even the defined contribution plans are yielding to the more vulnerable 401(k)–such as the Enron workers once counted on and General Motors new hires will be stuck with.
When workers do decide to fight back against employer demands for givebacks they immediately find out that the most effective strike tactics, ones used to initially build our unions during past labor upsurge, are all illegal. They can’t use a sit-down strike such as Goodyear workers down the road in Akron did in 1935. Nor under the Taft-Hartley Act can they use mass picketing to block workplace entrances, as the Toledo Auto-Lite workers did in 1934. They can’t appeal to transportation workers to embargo struck products, or carry out secondary boycotts.
Workers in the railroad and airline industries are covered under a different though hardly better law. Railroad strikes are measured in hours while legally mandated mediation and boards protract contract negotiations for years.
Recently the bosses’ lawyers have turned to other laws, such as bankruptcy, to smash our unions–especially in steel, auto, and the airlines.
And, of course, outsourcing, and offshoring, have taken a terrible toll on good union jobs and the palpable threat of such moves in this age of globalization is a 700-pound gorilla sitting at every negotiating table.
Unions cannot successfully overcome these challenges through traditional, legal collective bargaining alone. And, we must never forget, nearly ninety percent of the working class today are not in unions.
The big, literally life or death issues of war and global warming are not going to be worked out at the negotiating table either.
And what about the educational future of our kids and grandkids? They not only have to worry about SAT scores but also FICO scores because their only hope of getting a college education is by piling up enormous debt.
All of these challenges require political solutions.
Now workers in most other industrialized countries, though also under attack today, are faring much better than we. In countries that once envied the American worker living standard the working class has universal quality health care, adequate retirement income, free college or trade school education for their kids, as well as shorter work weeks, vacations of at least 4-5 weeks a year and significant job security protection–all guaranteed by law for all workers.
The workers in these other countries only obtained these superior conditions and living standards by having political parties of their own, acting in conjunction with their unions. There is no other way.
American unions are in grave crisis. In my view, if organized labor does not embrace a labor party, in the way our fellow workers in Europe and Canada have done, our union movement will wither and die.
Unfortunately, most unions are not moving toward the labor party. They are in fact more committed than ever to supporting, in the vain hope of influencing, the bosses’ parties, mainly the Democrats.
In the 2004 election cycle our unions spent more than 400 million dollars on Anybody But Bush--and we got Bush. We got a Bush claiming a new mandate, spending political capital on the most reactionary outburst in living memory. In 2006 labor again spent a ton of money, and mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers and succeeded in electing a Democrat congress. What do we have to show for this victory?
The only legislation passed by labor’s friends on Capitol Hill with any significant benefit for working people was a very modest raise in the minimum wage. Even this was subsidized by the taxpayers. Part of the deal was business tax breaks to offset the cost to employers for giving the working poor their first raise in a decade.
The minor tinkering with Taft-Hartley in the Employee Free Choice Act has still not passed in the Democrat controlled Senate and, even if it does, everyone knows it is a meaningless gesture, sure to be vetoed.
Single-payer legislation introduced by John Conyers in the House, endorsed by hundreds of unions, has failed to even get a committee hearing. No sponsor for the bill has been found in the Democrat Senate.
Nothing significant, and certainly nothing good, has been done on environmental issues.
And the new peace congress has voted to fully fund the Iraq war with no strings attached.
So the scorecard on labor’s most recent efforts to promote Democrat friends shows either snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as the Dems managed to do in 2004 or cynical inaction when elected in 2006. This is what some call “practical politics” in contrast to our “irrelevant, visionary politics.” Like the small town compulsive gambler warned by friends that his weekly poker game was crooked, the practical political strategists guiding labor continue to insist that the Democrats are the only game in town.
They are certainly not pikers when it comes to buying chips at their familiar table. Already the AFL-CIO has earmarked 53 million dollars in federation money for the Democrats in 2008. They expect that affiliates will kick in another 150 million or so, and have promised 200,000 foot soldiers for the Democrats in the field. They have begun earlier than ever, already sponsoring so-called debates among those battling for the presidential nomination. Many national unions have already made endorsements before the party conventions and one picked choices in each of the main parties. Change to Win, the NEA, and the various local union bodies will also once again swell the campaign coffers of the Democrats.
But, like individuals, no party can serve two masters. Regardless of what campaign slogans are adopted, regardless of which personalities are nominated for leadership and elected office, regardless of the indispensable role labor and social activists play in their electoral success, the Democrats, like their evil twin Republicans, ultimately serve the master class of bosses, bankers, and brass hats. The duplicity of Democrat “friends of labor” is of long standing and well documented throughout history right down to this morning’s headlines. It is felt in the bones of the majority who don’t vote–not out of apathy but because they don’t see enough of a difference between a Bush and an Anybody But Bush. I submit that those who think they are going to change or even capture the Democrats are the ones with starry eyed illusions.
Present conditions may keep the Labor Party irrelevant in the sense of affecting the outcome of next year’s election, as our detractors charge. But we should not shrink from their characterization of us as “visionaries.” That’s a label we proudly accept. We can envision not going with hat in hand–a hat filled with cash–to beg the bosses choice of political leaders not to kick us quite so hard when we’re down. We think we have more latent power than the employers and their political minions.
Our class does all the work of society. We pay the taxes. We fight the wars. Like the line in our song says without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn. Why can we not find the power to have a party of our own to represent our interests rather than the class that lords over us?
What we have in the way of democratic rights and middle class living standards were won only by mass movements inspired by women and men of vision. Working class America owes much to the likes of Frederick Douglass, Mother Jones, Gene Debs, Alice Hamilton, A Phillip Randolph, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King–to name just a few who both had vision of how the world could be a better place for the downtrodden and mobilized independent action toward realizing that vision.
Tony Mazzocchi is another who deserves to be on that list. Tony had a vision and drive that was indispensable to securing OSHA to make our workplaces a lot safer. He also joined with pioneer environmentalists in helping to get the EPA. He was out front in building working alliances between labor and the civil rights and peace movements. But he considered his most important vision, to which he devoted the final years of his life, to be the Labor Party project.
That was because Tony understood that even the impressive victories won by the civil rights, antiwar, feminist, and environmental movements in the Sixties and Seventies were temporary and tentative, subject to incremental undermining, vulnerable to complete reversal in periods of reaction.
To achieve fundamental lasting change requires linking our battles in the workplace through our unions, and in the streets through mass issue movements, with a political party run by workers in the interest of workers and our allies.
That vision of a workers party contesting American bosses for political power was supplemented with a comprehensive program to serve the needs of working people, adopted at the Founding Convention here in Cleveland in 1996. Program and strategy were further fleshed out at our second convention two years later in Pittsburgh, also attended by about 1400.
Now there are some who say, “This vision stuff sounds good. The program is great. But you guys have been going for more than a decade now and I don’t see much of your party. You never have any candidates on the ballot I can vote for. You used to have a pretty good newspaper but I haven’t seen it in years. What do you expect to accomplish?”
There’s no denying that since that promising beginning of our first two conventions the Labor Party has been in a steady decline. There are various reasons but I want to look at two.
First, is that the formative days of the Labor Party coincided with a mood of confidence and combativeness in the labor movement. There was the big victory in the UPS strike. The UAW took advantage of just in time methods to hamstring General Motors. But since then the recurring themes have been lost strikes, unprecedented give-backs, desperate attempts to revive “partnership” with employers. Since the Labor Party is organically connected to the union movement we thrive during its upsurge and contract during its times of defeat and demoralization.
The other major factor was an erosion of our existing union resources. Tony Mazzocchi’s Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union made big financial and staff contributions to our party. But when OCAW merged with the Paperworkers to form PACE contributions were reduced to just the annual ten thousand dollar affiliation fee, and that level has continued since their merger with the Steelworkers. One of the first actions taken by the Teamsters when they absorbed the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees was disaffiliation from the Labor Party–though the Pennsylvania Federation of the BMWE-T remains a strong Labor Party supporter. Some affiliates, such as the UE, and the United Mine Workers, have their own budget crisis because of membership losses and can no longer give material support to the Labor Party on the scale they once did. And dozens of local union affiliates around the country no longer exist–victims of plant closings.
Now twenty dollar annual membership dues doesn’t go very far. The loss of union resources has forced a drastic reduction in Labor Party staff and publications. It also prevented us from implementing realistic election campaigns in line with the electoral strategy adopted in 1998.
That policy made clear that we were not interested in running token campaigns, or being “spoilers.” As a party that hopes to ultimately take political power to enact far-reaching legislative and constitutional changes sorely needed we are only interested in running credible campaigns.
Among the prerequisites spelled out in the policy is “Endorsing unions represent a significant portion of area union membership, sufficient to ensure that LP candidate will be seen as the labor candidate.”
Until recently we didn’t have any where in the country where we were close to satisfying that requirement. Now we do and we’re ready to pretty much bet the farm on what we think can be a major breakthrough for our party.
This opportunity comes, as is so often the case in working class history, in a most unexpected venue–South Carolina. Many of you here heard Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, speak at the outdoor antiwar rally held in conjunction with the USLAW assembly here last December. Under her leadership the South Carolina state fed became a Labor Party affiliate. Now their state party has become an official recognized party with ballot access.
That was no simple achievement. They had to collect thousands of signatures of registered voters from around the state. They didn’t hire help to do that but went out to workers in their homes, and places like the Saturday Flea Markets, explaining one-on-one what they were doing and asking for their help. In the process they established Labor Party committees in a majority of the state’s counties.
I was privileged to attend the concluding ceremony of the Founding Convention of the South Carolina Labor Party last September. Though not much bigger than this gathering it reflected the diversity of working class activists in that state–union and unorganized community folks, Black and white, ages ranging from teenage to septuagenarian. No body paid them to sign up for the big fight they recognized lay ahead. No body saw the Labor Party as being a shrewd career move. They were fed up with the status quo and dedicated to hard work to change it.
The South Carolina Labor Party has the endorsement of much of the state’s labor movement, small that it may be, including the state fed, the legendary longshore locals in Charleston, the transit workers in Charleston and Columbia, and steelworker locals in the paper industry. They met, and maintain their office, in the CWA union hall in Columbia.
They are now in the process of selecting candidates for state legislature in next year’s election. This will be the Labor Party’s very first entry in electoral politics. We are hopeful that this will be an example we can use to reignite interest in the Labor Party and attract some support of our unions. It will be a fresh antidote to the debilitating infection of relying on the lesser evil of the bosses’ choice of candidates.
To that end we will be devoting the lion’s share of our modest national resources to assisting our sisters and brothers in the Palmetto State–and be calling on the state and local party units to help out as well.
Now that doesn’t mean that the Labor Party will solely be fund raisers and cheer leaders for South Carolina. Certainly we all hope the Ohio State party will continue your exemplary work in the health care and antiwar struggles.
In Kansas City next Saturday our local chapter is holding what we call a mini-conference, dealing with three issues–The Post-SiCKO Fight for Single-Payer; the Kansas City Transit Crisis, a major local issue; and our concept of Just Transition to guarantee the working class decent new jobs as we restructure the economy to deal with global warming. In the course of building this event we’ve established good relations with some new folks such as a group of medical students that came together to work for single-payer, and environmental activists we met through the local Step It Up event last spring. These are people we would not reach through unions because they don’t belong to unions. That’s where our state and local units come in to play, reaching in to the communities, campuses and mass movements outside unions–as well as building solidarity with union actions. Such work is essential if we are to build a truly mass party.
Now we should be realistic. We are back to being more advocates for the labor party rather than a party poised to take power. We have to be mindful of the limitations imposed upon us by present circumstances. But we should not give in to the unforgivable sin of despair. Our vision is valid. Our program is solid. And we know, from history, that things can change very fast.
The Republican Party was founded in 1854 in response to the threatened expansion of slavery. Ten years later it elected the President of the United States. We can’t predict what issue or struggle may take off that could propel our party into a contender for power. But the potential for such movement will be there. So instead of moaning over our hard times in the present we prepare to take advantage of opportunity when it inevitably arises.
The Irish freedom movement has an old motto, “our day will come.” I believe we should also embrace that sentiment. Work such as the Ohio State Labor Party does today readies us for that great day ahead.
Thank you very much.
The webmaster of the kclabor.org website is a paid-up member of UAW Local 1981—the National Writers Union. During the 70-80s, while employed at Litton Microwave’s Minneapolis operations, he was elected to various positions in UE Local 1139, including Shop Chairman and Local President. In 1980 he took a union leave from the plant to work on a successful UE organizing drive at a Litton runaway plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When Litton began shutting down its four Minneapolis plants Onasch was selected to be a worker representative in a Dislocated Worker Project administered by Minneapolis Community College—where he became a member of the Minnesota Education Association. Returning to his home town of Kansas City in 1989, he soon began a 14-year stint as a Metro bus driver. During that time he published a rank and file newsletter, Transit Truth, chaired a union Community Outreach Committee that organized public protests against cuts in transit service, helped organize a privatized spin-off at Johnson County Transit, and served a term as Vice-President of ATU Local 1287. He has also been involved in US Labor Against the War and the Labor Party since those organizations were launched and represents Midwest chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council.
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