Labor Advocate Online

Workers and Electoral Politics—Part Three

Three Major Strategies
Bill Onasch

I had the privilege of serving on the Labor Party Electoral Policy Commission that made recommendations adopted by the LP's First Constitutional Convention. That body had a rich discussion and reached a consensus that has held up well through the turmoil of the 2000 election and the dismay and disarray that followed. I have tried to apply the lessons of our debates in the Labor Party to this series of articles about workers and electoral politics but I stress that these views are my personal responsibility and not any kind of official Labor Party “line.”

There are essentially three major electoral strategies being advanced within the labor movement and its allies.

1) Promote and attempt to influence labor “friends” within the two major parties, primarily among the Democrats.
2) Build a viable “third party” from the grass roots, focused on local elections fought around broad “progressive” issues.
3) The Labor Party project.

Gomper's Ghost
Strategy #1 has been dominant for more than a century. It reflects the historic thinking of American craft unionism, which differed greatly from the European experience. In most major European industrial countries trade unions were initially organized by mass socialist parties and unions maintain close connections to those parties to this day. Britain was a notable exception to this. Viable British unions preceded mass workers parties and, only after bad luck in trying to work with the Liberals, the unions later founded their own Labour Party.

But the labor movement developed much differently on this side of the Atlantic. The 19th Century Socialist Labor Party, largely based on immigrant workers from central and eastern Europe, tried to build their own revolutionary unions with absolutely no luck at all. A split from that group produced the Socialist Party—best symbolized by their five time presidential candidate, Eugene V Debs—that took a nonsectarian stand of working with all unions.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) represented a syndicalist approach to American labor. Syndicalism attempts to combine militant job actions and revolutionary nonelectoral political activity in the same organization. They refused to sign contracts with employers and opposed participating in elections. They wanted to replace traditional government institutions with new self-governing bodies based on the workplace that would collectively own and plan the economy. The IWW led some impressive strikes and political fights for free speech from 1905 to 1920. But a combination of flawed strategy and vicious repression by the government and vigilantes reduced them to a tiny radical sect.

The mainstream of the American labor movement came to be dominated by craft unionism, represented through the American Federation of Labor (AF of L). The craft unions were built around skilled trades, employing mainly white, male, native-born craftsmen. Their leaders tended to be suspicious of, if not outright hostile toward, unskilled and immigrant workers. Many craft unions banned women and nonwhites from membership. In industries where they were forced to take in such “undesireable”elements, as in garment and meat packing, they often established segregated locals and contracts for them. The Iron Workers had a special category—shopmen—for those who were not craftsmen. The shopmen were counted as 5/8 of a member for purposes of electing convention delegates—not unlike a similar provision in the U.S. Constitution for counting slaves in the census.

Unlike the socialists and syndic lists, the philosophy of craft unionism promoted preference for class collaboration over class conflict. Early AF of L leaders often rubbed shoulders with the Robber Barons of the day in formations such as the Civic Federation. Unfortunately for the craft unionists, the bosses were not always as consistent in their commitment to collaboration.

Sam Gompers and Family

The craft unionists thought it would be improper for them to have their own political party. It would appear combative rather than cooperative. While a few unions maintained ties with the Socialist Party during the Debs days, long-time AF of L president Sam Gompers expressed the deep political thinking of most of this current with the oft-repeated adage “reward your friends, punish your enemies.” After Bill Green took over the AF of L leadership following  Gompers departure in the 1920s the federation's politics became even more conservative. For example, the AF of L long opposed establishing unemployment compensation.

John L Lewis and Bill Green

Craft unionism failed to expand into the growing mass production industries during the Roaring Twenties. When the Great Depression hit in the Thirties even their skilled trades base was decimated. Eventually there was a split in the AF of L, led by John L Lewis of the miners and the leadership of the needle trades unions, that formed the Committee [later Congress] of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The CIO promoted industrial unionism—that is organizing all workers in a workplace into one union, with one contract. (In many cases there were even national contracts.) This was the only effective way to organize industries such as auto, steel, rubber, meat packing, etc.

But with massive unemployment the CIO needed more than just a superior organizational structure to succeed. They had to win the sympathy of the jobless that represented a vast pool of potential scabs. That meant taking up social and political issues as well as bread-and-butter trade union questions. The CIO, utilizing many young radical activists, did a good job in championing the causes of the unemployed and in supporting equality for women and nonwhite workers. They came to be viewed as not just a union but a broad social movement fighting for the interests of the working class as a whole. By doing the right thing they not only convinced the jobless not to scab—many unemployed workers actively supported CIO organizing and strike actions that they had no personal stake in.

During this upsurge of industrial unionism there was also much interest in forming a labor party to contest elections as well. In Minnesota the Farmer-Labor Party, which existed largely only on paper during the Twenties, became the dominant party, electing governors, congressmen, and major city mayors. The Democrats were relegated to minor third party status in that state. In New York unions established the American Labor Party which ran some candidates of its own while endorsing some Democrats and Republicans as well. Mike Quill, head of the Transport Workers Union, was elected to the New York City City Council on the ALP ticket.

The bosses were frightened of the militant actions of the unions and the Democrats were alarmed at the sentiment for a Labor Party. That's what motivated FDR's New Deal. The Wagner Act, Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act, all were concessions offered only in response to victories already won and threats of further advances by workers in motion. 

Union leaders, such as Dan Tobin of the Teamsters, and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, were appointed to key positions in the Democrat Party. “You don't need a Labor Party,” they argued, “you already have one—the Democrats.”

Sidney Hillman

They found an unlikely and sometimes embarrassing ally in the Communist Party. The CP recruited thousands of workers during this upsurge and had significant influence in several CIO unions. After the victory of Hitler in Germany the line of the Communist International was to build multi-class “people's fronts” to fight fascism. They searched for “progressive” elements among the ruling class to support against reactionary elements. The CP stopped talking about the Democrats as a bosses party instead presenting it as some kind of progressive coalition. With only a couple of brief deviations—during the short-lived Hitler-Stalin Pact, and at the beginning of the Cold War—this has been their position for over sixty years. What's left of the CP today is still hostile toward a Labor Party and thought Ralph Nader was as bad as a scab. In 1944 the CP teamed up with Hubert Humphrey to surrender the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party to the Democrats. (To this day the Democrats dba Democratic Farmer-Labor Party [DFL] in Minnesota.) In New York the CP consistently pushed for the ALP to be simply an additional ballot line for “progressive” Democrats.

Gus Hall, long-time Communist Party leader

With the indispensable help of the Communist Party the old craft union electoral philosophy was salvaged in the CIO as well as the AF of L, and the promising movement for a Labor Party deferred. The wartime mobilization, and later postwar prosperity, took the edge off the urgency of many of the issues that the CIO fought for during its formative period. The AF of L became convinced of the wisdom of industrial organization. With their differences narrowed the AF of L and CIO reunited in 1955.

Many of the principles of craft unionism have been modified as class struggle, however regrettable to the leaders, shook up the labor movement. Women, nonwhites, and immigrants, taken together, make up a majority of union membership today. And, to their credit, the mainstream union leadership has recently taken some significant steps in organizing demonstrations, promoting issue education, and joining in coalitions with nonunion allies, around some key political questions.

But while there has been much progress made in the American labor movement since the days of Gompers his lineal descendants still cling to his nineteenth century electoral strategy (which was of dubious value even then). This Loyal Order of the Sons of Gompers, who tried to sell Al Gore as the savior of working families, consider themselves to be very practical, pragmatic politicians. But the record shows otherwise.

With all their rewarding and punishing consider these facts:

When it appeared the election was being stolen in Florida the AFL-CIO was out front, mobilizing their troops to fight for counting every vote. But, without any consultation, they were left twisting in the wind by Gore's magnanimous concession and Bush's good sport acceptance. On the Ashcroft nomination the federation again went out front to block it. But the Democrats declined to appear “divisive” by filibustering and, again, the AFL-CIO was made to look foolish, cranky and ineffective.

By any “practical,” meat-and-potatoes (or tofu and hummus if you prefer) measure, the electoral strategy of the AFL-CIO leadership has been a dismal failure. This moonshine to which they have long been addicted is not improving with age. It's time to pour it down the drain and sober up. We can't count on politicians who call us “friends;” we can only rely on ourselves.


Next page>>page two
>>page three

<<Part One, Some Preliminary Thoughts

<<Part Two, The Nader Factor