Labor Advocate Online
Questions and Answers About the Labor Party
by Bob Mast, Metro Detroit Labor Party
[We appreciate Bob Mast agreeing to publication of this exchange with a student.óLAO]
Here are my
answers to the questions you posed for your senior honors project at Moravian
College. Hope they are useful to you. It's good that you're doing a
much needed analysis of the Labor Party and fitting it into the history of third
parties. If possible, please share it with me. I'm planning to
integrate the experience of the Metro Detroit LP into the second book I'm now
doing on activism in the Detroit area. Good luck!
1. When you joined the labor Party what were your goals?
My wife and I joined the LP at its founding convention in June, 1996 in Cleveland. Prior to that I was very active in the Alliance for Progressive Action (APA) in Pittsburgh, PA and widely interviewing local activists for a never-completed book. The APA was a composite of some 45 liberal to progressive organizations, including women and gay rights, peace, people of color, and unions. APA leaders prided themselves in being ideology free. Though Tony Mazzocchi had brought his Labor Party Advocates ideas to Pittsburgh, they didn't take hold in the APA. Indeed, some scorned the labor party idea. I learned later that old-left antagonists in Pittsburgh were still fighting each other, this time over who should be the future LP standard bearer.
Prior to the LP's founding, my goals were to better understand the extant progressive movements, and to participate in a coalition of those movements that might become a strong force for change. When the LP appeared, support for its program and actions became my single goal. For the next six years I devoted my full time activism to building the LP: two years in Pittsburgh and four in Albuquerque. My old-left/new-left goals of the 60s and 70s, along with my more recent coalition-forming goals, were transformed and transferred to the Labor Party. It was there that I thought a new and relevant synthesis of the disparate progressive movements might occur, with unions providing leadership, resources, and political clout. Union goals would be mixed with goals of the differently-oppressed sectors of the working class around common class interests. And this all would be realized through the process of Labor Party work. My goal became that of helping build a working class party to directly compete with the two parties allied with the corporations and capital.
2. What do you consider the accomplishments/failures of the Labor Party so far?
Broadly, the major accomplishment was that the LP was actually formed and had a spurt of growth for several years. The major failure was that it didn't grow into a formidable force. The roadblocks to growth will be covered in question #3.
Thanks to the LPA groundwork laid by OCAW and Tony Mazzocchi, the basis for a party structure was formed in progressive union bodies and communities around the country. Though the LPs founders preferred a structure based on political districts, the founding convention decided to grandfather in the disparate LPA formations that had been accumulating since 1990. Nearly 50 urban-based chapters became recognized by the National as well as enough endorsing or affiliating union bodies to represent two million unionists. Several tens of thousands became dues paying members. These were big accomplishments .
In some places the LP grew fairly steadily and achieved a certain notoriety among those in a limited social, political, and labor circle. Certainly, the quality of leadership had much to do with this. But also, the extent and type of notoriety depended on the location, political culture, and configuration of groups that had LP contact. The very nature of the LP produced both negative and positive effects. It's programmatic essence was quasi-socialist, class-based, struggle-oriented, and included all social sectors of the working class. This hardly endeared the LP to an increasingly conservative establishment, whether it represented capital, labor, faith, community, or education. But many individuals and groups from the progressive left were attracted to the LP package, becoming educated and temporarily activated.
Thus, the LP re-introduced into U. S. politics the concept of a working class party, the first in many generations of political history. The LP challenged the world hegemony of multi-national capital and its two-party system of political support. The LP offered hope and a humanitarian vision to class-aware activists and the victims of exploitation and oppression. A new consciousness was opened for tens of thousands. This was no mean accomplishment. It could have lasting importance as the future of the working class movement unfolds.
3. What do you think have been the principal roadblocks that have hindered the success of the Labor Party so far?
The first principal roadblock was the worldwide right-wing takeover of power, signaling the capitalist crisis of the last three-plus decades. The accompanying ideology of neoconservatism permeated nearly all political systems in the world, including those experimenting with socialism. Since all institutions in a political economy are linked, the Labor Party emerged in the U. S. at a time when unions, community organizations, faith bodies, schools, and media were scrambling to adapt their missions to the "system." Some analysts have commented that this was not a fortuitous time for the LP to come out. Given the social need for radical change and assuming a minimally democratic context, I've concluded that there is no perfect historical time for new working class politics to emerge. Of course, the right-wing conditions of the 90s facilitated other roadblocks to LP success.
The sound logic of basing the LP in the union movement met stiff resistance from most AFL-CIO affiliates. Never more than 10 of the smaller, progressive national unions settled into the LP fold. Many union locals and some central labor councils established a relationship with the LP, but most lacked enthusiasm and failed to provide the leadership and resources the LP needed for growth. Perhaps LP founders had misread the potential of organized labor, failed to appreciate a growing conservatism that accompanied labor's dimunation, and gave too little credence to labor's strong attachment to the two party system. But the other side of the coin is that union rank and file flooded into the Labor Party, constituting some 80 percent of the membership. This suggests a rejection of undemocratic, bureaucratic unionism on the part of some rank and file. More importantly, it was their affirmation of LP validity.
A smaller roadblock, built in from the beginning, was the existence of factions that settled into LP life and work with the seeming purpose of "raiding" members and/or being highhanded in some way on behalf of another loyalty. It's tricky to analyze this because sectarian identities seldom surfaced. Then the murky possibility of "government agents in our midst" cannot be dismissed because of known history. Major internal disputes arose at the chapter level which were real and destructive, but it's difficult to attribute them only to leftism, agents, or egocentrism when in fact there were many honest differences on tactics and strategy. Metro New York chapter - largest in the country - had its charter yanked by the state party when conflict and dissension reached an intolerable level.
The LP was a magnet that attracted hundreds of bright, experienced, energized, and dedicated persons into cadre-like roles. All were drawn into a sort of organizational vacuum where there existed few rules for third party organization and etiquette other than the union model. Some unionists, even a few Republicans, were comfortable with that as long as the LP performed as an instrument of union growth, which it was by definition. But the LP wasn't a union. It was a political party, independent of other parties and independent of labor bureaucracies.
For various reasons, the National LP was unable or unwilling to recommend broad organizational guidelines and strategic plans that chapters and organizing committees desperately needed for sustained growth. The National always was grossly short staffed and underfunded in light of its immense responsibility to build an unpopular, independent party of the working class. The unions weren't kicking in the needed resources and the chapters were basically on their own.
A related roadblock was the fact that the LP didn't know how to build a labor party. Who knows how to build a labor party in a country where the dominant political culture simultaneously scorns the working class and a democratic political system?
4. In your opinion, how important has been the controversy in the party about whether or not to run candidates for public office?
The electoral question was a sensitive and controversial thing from the very beginning of the LP. I'm reluctant to say it was a principal roadblock to party development, surely not at the same level as the more endemic roadblocks that I outlined in #3 above. However, some will say that the absence of electoral politics was one of the major reasons for the decline of the party. I'm content to leave it as an important academic question. No empirical data exists since no LP-sponsored election was ever held.
However, a persistent and verbal minority, tending toward the left, firmly believed that a real political party, in order to gain acceptance and grow, had to run candidates. They believed that effective electoral campaigns could educate the public on the LPs program and vision, and be a strong recruitment catalyst. How, they questioned, could the LP seek to take power without trying to use the democratic process, however limited, that was available in the electoral arena? This group believed that initial electoral undertakings should be local (city council, school board, county commission, etc.). An ideal LP electoral initiative would involve a qualified and respected working class candidate. This candidate would run on, and be dedicated to, a version of the LP's 16 point program that was tailored to the specific needs of the candidate's constituents. A well organized and disciplined political organization - with solid representation from the neighborhoods and union rank and file, and under the authority of the local LP body - would require any LP office holder to be accountable to the program and rules of both the national and local LPs.
The electoral attitude of the founding unions and the majority of LP members ranged from luke warm to hostile. Some, content with the LP being only an educational/agitational entity, would have supported a permanent non-electoral policy. Though electoral politics was debated at the 1996 founding convention, the delegates tabled it so the party could get some on-the-ground experience under its belt. The next two heady, optimistic years saw an upward blip in membership and union endorsements. There also was a gathering momentum around the country for the LP to go electoral.
This came to pass at the 1998 Pittsburgh convention where a living, breathing Labor Party was formed, and a resolution on electoral strategy became embedded in the Constitution. This resolution had tough financial and organizational criteria that any electoral endeavor had to meet. The criteria were so exacting that only a large, rich, well grounded chapter could meet them. The 1998 convention also adopted excellent resolutions on outreach to unions and worker-supportive organizations, and restructuring the party along geographical electoral lines. To its credit, the National required its chapters to develop strategic plans. Some chapters' plans included an electoral component which would act as a beacon or threshold for organizing work. Some began to work in community coalitions to reform local electoral laws so that third parties would have easier ballot access while the electorate would realize greater democracy.
Then along came Ralph Nader in 2000. Not only did he galvanize large numbers of progressives, but he had the Green Party insert the economic democracy program of the Labor Party into the Green platform. The Nader phenomenon evoked consternation and confusion in the LP ranks, causing some stalwarts to jump ship. Nader's relationship with the LP did not endear it to most unions, already cautious of third parties, and already strongly wedded to the Democrats.
The electoral question was but one of a variety of political and organizational factors coming together at the beginning of the new millennium that served to take the wind out of the LP sails. The party had grown more mature on paper, but it lacked the knowledge and wherewithal that would allow implementation at the rank and file, grass roots level.
5. What do you feel is the future of the Labor Party?
First the good news. The Labor Party is in place, with a fine progressive program and a general organizing plan of great merit. The LP was reconfirmed at the 2002 convention in Washington, D. C., though with a seriously diminished set of delegates that reflected the decline in the party. The party has had nearly a decade of both positive and negative experiences which future organizers can draw upon. The union movement and numerous thousands of working class citizens have been exposed to the LP's program and visions. The progressive movements in the U. S. also have been exposed, and seem generally to hold the LP in moderately high esteem. As throughout American history, there still is an absolute logic to the existence of a labor party, even though the nature of the work force has radically changed from agricultural through industrial to service.
Though not necessarily good news, but bearing upon the future, the world political economy seems headed in a perilous direction. Anti-working class by nature, capital and corporations are determined to destroy workers' organizations and further immiserate the working class. Most thinking people of the working class believe this. Since the objective condition of the working class should continue to deteriorate in the present political economy - with its high tech, oligarchial, multinational thrusts - the need for an independent party of the working class becomes ever more apparent.
Whether or when such a logic will seep into the consciousness of the labor aristocracy remains to be seen. Much depends on whether the Democratic Party continues its rightward tack and whether the economy spins into depression. Both seem to be highly probable. Of near certainty is the continuation of job loss to low-wage areas, acceleration of automated production, wage and benefit reductions, decay of the public safety net, restrictions on freedom and democracy, and a lowering of the quality of life for the majority of Americans. As these trends combine in the not-too-distant future, large portions of the labor movement may come to realize, as was true in the past, that workers' interests may be better served through an independent party of the working class.
The great alienation of the American electorate, along with the strong tendency toward independent and third party voter registration, bode well for a revitalization of the Labor Party. I have more than a dream or a hope for a reborn LP; I have an expectation of it. There is in this country a powerful progressive instinct that arose in the past, during periods of crisis or great social need, to the tasks of reconciliation, renewal, and recovery. To those who may suggest that the LP's mission is too radical for these reactionary days, my response is "there is no alternative."
Rebuilding the LP is a mighty task, requiring vast amounts of energy, resources, dedication, and creativity. The present slump in the political morale of progressives, joined with their pessimism about the right-wing cabal's takeover, is, in my opinion, something of a temporary condition. The right wing is digging its own grave as it arrogantly runs roughshod over the working people of the world. Many will come to realize this as the facts are understood and become the grounds for a broad uprising. As the slogan goes, "you can't fool all of the people all of the time."