Labor Advocate Online
Three Hopeful Glimmers On A Dark
by Bill Onasch
Part Two: Labor Party Interim National Council
Events such as the March For Women’s Lives (see Part One of this series) can be more than merely inspirational. Mass mobilizations around issues can often win short-term objectives.
The Supreme Court is not sequestered. They know that over a million people devoted considerable personal time and money to making a strong statement in defense of choice. That will at least make those in black robes think twice before reversing Roe. In fact earlier mass actions a couple of generations ago played a decisive role in pushing the Court to initially recognize the right to choose.
Similar important gains have been won in the past, and will undoubtedly be won again in the future, around issues such as war and civil rights. Broad based coalitions, united around very limited objectives, have been the main mass expression of political opposition to ruling class policies since the end of World War II.
Issue Movements Not Enough
But, as important as these movements are, they are not sufficient to serve all the political needs of the working class.
Their victories are always tentative and temporary, subject to erosion or reversal by the corporate Establishment at a later date.
Because of their diversity—that gives them so much strength—such movements can never expand much beyond their initial limited goals. All attempts to transform single issue coalitions into multi-issue have failed. Adding issues does not expand, it narrows and fragments coalitions.
Even single issue mass movements have been unable to thrive beyond limited, achievable goals even in their general arena. Despite many tries, generic "peace" or "anti-imperialist" movements have never played significant roles. The mighty mass antiwar movement of the Vietnam war period did not survive past the end of that war. New formations had to be created to oppose intervention in Central America, then again around the Gulf War, and still yet again around the current war/occupation in Iraq.
These ad hoc single issue movements have been necessary because there is no significant, organized, political opposition to the corporate establishment in the United States. Politics is completely monopolized by twin corporate parties. Even most "radicals" focus on modifying the behavior of these boss run institutions. Certainly the mainstream leadership of organized labor has sworn fealty to the Democrat twin of these evil jealous siblings.
This lack of a working class political opposition is what has limited our struggles to increasingly desperate, defensive, rear guard battles against a powerful, aggressive, and arrogant ruling class.
Donkey Chases Elephant—To the Right
Much has been made about the big shift to the right by the current administration. What is overlooked is a similar rightward move by the Democrats. Kerry is undoubtedly the most right wing candidate ever fielded by the Democrats. He’s gone so far as to indicate he would not insist on a Supreme Court nominee supporting Roe v Wade. There’s a reason why the "Bush Lite" label fits Kerry so well.
The fact is that the whole ruling class is marching rightward. They will continue to do so until they encounter meaningful opposition. With labor, feminist, civil rights, environmental, and peace movements all committed to Anybody But Bush there is little reason for our masters—be they riding a pachyderm or a jack ass—to worry.
A Party Of Our Own
Fortunately, there is a small but significant current within the labor movement that is working to build a working class party.
"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."—from Electoral Strategy of the Labor Party.
(If you’re not familiar with the Labor Party I urge you to check out the party’s national and Kansas City web sites, as well as the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute, the Labor Party’s educational and cultural arm. You might also find this article I wrote a few years ago helpful.)
The Labor Party is a long way from the ultimate goal of contending for power. Unions representing more than a million workers have affiliated or endorsed. That’s a good start but still far short of winning recognition as the party of organized labor as a whole.
Of course the majority of the working class is outside the union movement, and must be reached primarily in their communities. The Labor Party’s individual membership is still being counted in the thousands—not the millions needed to take the party’s campaigns into every community.
The road ahead for the Labor Party is challenging, to say the least. There is, of course, no guarantee of success. But history is full of examples of great movements and parties responsible for social change that began with even fewer resources than the Labor Party has to work with.
If you’re looking for guarantees there are some out there. If we continue the same old, same old it is guaranteed our shrinking unions will become irrelevant, our "Middle Class" living standards will go down the tubes. That you can take to the bank. That’s the great motivator for those of us committed to the patient hard work required to build our needed party from the ground up.
The day following the intoxicating March For Women’s Lives I attended a much more sober meeting of the Labor Party Interim National Council (INC). The INC is the party’s highest body between conventions, roughly equivalent to the major party national committees. It is made up of representatives from affiliated unions and state and local chapters. I was there representing community chapters in the Midwest.
Unlike other parties, our agenda was not centered on how to hustle votes in November. The Labor Party is neither running nor endorsing any candidates. We are still far short of meeting the criteria of our electoral policy for seeking a place on the ballot.
That means the party’s affiliates and individual members are on our own for this election. Most affiliates will, without enthusiasm, join other unions in supporting Kerry. Probably most individual members will as well—though some will back Nader, a few will vote for socialist protest tickets, and a fair number will join the majority of the working class in sitting out all the November hub-bub.
But just because we’re not trying, as a party, to round up votes in November doesn’t mean we have nothing to do. "Unlike other political parties, the Labor Party will be active before, during and between elections, building solidarity in our communities, workplaces and unions."— electoral strategy.
We have a comprehensive program for the needs of the working class. (See Call for Economic Justice.)
We respond to emergency situations, such as war. (See Labor Party Interim National Council Statement Against War in Iraq, February, 2003, reaffirmed at this INC meeting.)
Our last convention (2002) decided the party should focus on three major issue campaigns—Just Health Care, Worker Rights, and Free Higher Education. Promoting these campaigns, during a time when candidates try with all their might to duck and waffle on issues, was the center of attention for the INC.
I’m going to deal with the Just Health Care campaign in the third, concluding part of this series.
One recent example of the Worker Rights campaign reported on was the Worker Rights At Home and Abroad conference held in Kansas City in March.
Free Higher Ed
Prior to world War II, few working class kids ever made it to college. During the great Depression, they considered themselves fortunate to graduate from high school.
At the end of the war that began to change. A lot of veterans used their GI Bill benefits to go to school. The post war economic boom produced a "middle class" layer among workers that enabled the war babies and baby boomers to consider college rather than feeling compelled to immediately enter the job market. During the Sixties and Seventies there was explosive growth of college enrollments, particularly at low tuition public schools. College was no longer just for the elite.
But, in recent years, affordable education has been under attack. Every state is slashing budgets and higher education is usually an early and often victim of cuts. That has meant big increases in tuition.
Over the last decade, average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges increased 40 percent—nearly fifty percent more than the inflation rate—and last year alone it increased by a whopping 14 percent. The end of this trend is not yet in sight.
Financial aid doesn’t help nearly as much as it once did. During the campus boom days, in 1975, Pell Grants picked up as much as 84 percent of college costs. That’s now been cut in half—42 percent is the maximum covered today by Pell.
Increasingly, student assistance has shifted away from grants to loans from privatized Sallie Mae and other for profit institutions. As recently as ten years ago, outright grants made up half of assistance to students. Today that figure is 39 percent.
Not surprisingly the average debt of college graduates has more than doubled since 1990.
(For an excellent summary of this cost/debt crisis see Majoring in Debt by Adolph Reed Jr.)
The Labor Party’s position is simple, based on the success of the GI Bill: since society as a whole benefits from a well educated population society should guarantee free higher education in public schools to all who qualify for admission.
The financial cost of such a guarantee is easily obtainable. Currently it would take about 27 billion dollars. Of course we can expect—and hope—enrollments would greatly swell if tuition were no longer seen as an insurmountable obstacle. It would be good to see more Black youth in college than in jail. But even if the bill doubled it could be comfortably absorbed by simply ending the recent tax cuts for the rich enacted during the Bush administration.
The Labor Party Free Higher Ed campaign is headed up by co-chairs Adolph Reed, Jr., Professor of Political Science on the Graduate Faculty of Social and Political Science, New School for Social Research; Preston H. Smith, II, Associate Professor of Political Science, Mount Holyoke College. They reported to the INC on the progress of this effort.
Not surprisingly, the Free Higher Ed demand has received a warm reception among academics in such groups as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the American Political Science Association. But other unions have shown interest as well. For example, the California Nurses Association uses Free Higher Ed as part of their proposed solution to the nurse shortage crisis. And surveys taken in both blue and white collar unions indicate strong support.
Crafting Organizational Structure to
Advance Political Goals
The Labor Party has some strengths. The party program gets a good response. Labor Party Press is an excellent and widely respected newspaper. Interest in the Just Health Care and Free Higher Ed campaigns have led to lots of presentations to union bodies.
If we were content to accept a role as a "service" organization we’d be sitting pretty. We could collect our annual dues and in return send out our newspaper, e-mail updates, and occasionally hold interesting conferences. I belong to a couple of such organizations—Public Citizen and Alliance of Retired Americans—who do useful work without requiring—or allowing—me to provide much more than modest financial support.
While such "service" is undoubtedly an essential component of the Labor Party project it clearly is not sufficient to achieve our overriding goal—to lead the working class to political power. To accomplish that mission will require an activist organization bringing the party’s campaigns into the unions, workplaces, and communities. While those campaigns may be primarily educational in nature today we can count on the political climate changing, becoming more friendly to transforming our educational efforts into actions.
Creating an organizational structure not only adequate for our present limitations but also capable of moving quickly to take advantage of new opportunities that will inevitably emerge from the class struggle, is quite a challenge. We can learn some things from past models but there is nothing we can take off the rack that will be completely suitable. Our mission requires us to set precedents—not follow them.
The INC engaged in some helpful initial "brain storming" in this area. The discussion will continue at our next meeting, immediately following the November election.
May 26, 2004
Part One—March For Women's Lives
Coming soon—Part Three, Meeting the Challenge conference