Discussion On the Future Of the American Labor Movement

Labor Advocate Online

What Next for the Labor Party?
by Jerry Gordon, Chair, Ohio State Labor Party

Immediately after the November 2002 election, the labor movement began moving into high gear preparing for the '04 Democratic presidential primaries. While labor was split on whom to back as its preferred candidate, there was consensus and unity on the overriding goal of defeating Bush. It was understood from the beginning of the process that whoever emerged as the Democratic nominee would receive labor's full backing.

So labor once again put all of its eggs into the Democratic Party basket. And once again that basket was smashed to smithereens.  Labor continues to pay a terrible price for supporting one of the bosses" parties as the way to defeat the other.

The results of the November 2 election have created a new opportunity for demonstrating again that labor cannot rely on the Democrats to protect and advance workers' interests. The need today, as in the past, is for labor to build its own mass independent working class party, the same as the union movement has done in other industrial countries. The challenge facing the Labor Party is to convince organized workers that it can be that party, or at least help pave the way toward its formation. To effectively carry out this mission, the Party must adopt a correct strategy and put in motion steps to transform itself from its current weakened state to one where it is looked to for leadership.

Evaluating the Labor Party's Past
We need a full blown discussion within the Labor Party as to what to do next. Such a discussion, however, cannot be confined only to projecting plans for the future. It must begin with a long overdue review and examination of our past, drawing lessons from our experience—both positive and negative. Conducting an in-depth evaluation of the past is essential before charting any new strategy; otherwise we risk repeating the same mistakes made previously.

Let's begin by asking if it was correct in 1996 for supporters of a labor party in the U.S. to replace Labor Party Advocates (LPA) with the Labor Party. In retrospect, I believe it was not. A political party, as commonly defined, is an organization whose objective is to win political power.  A central focus of its activities should clearly be in the electoral arena. After all, that is where major decisions affecting the lives of the working class are made. The idea of a “non-electoral labor party” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  

From the beginning, there was a strong disinclination within the Labor Party to run candidates. The documents approved by the founding convention provided no opening to do so. The contention was made that in order to run candidates for office, you must have substantial support from unions, recruit a sufficiently large membership, win allies in the community, and generate adequate resources to finance a campaign. Running candidates without significant backing in the labor movement would only result in a marginal vote that would discredit the Party, while diverting it from concentrating on its priority campaigns.

But if all this was true and if the Labor Party was not in a position to run candidates, and would not be for an indefinite period, why not continue with LPA and take more time to lay the necessary groundwork, so that when the party was finally established, it could begin running candidates from the start?

Three advantages might have accrued from such a progression. First, major unions open to the idea of ultimately establishing a labor party but not ready to act on the idea in 1996 might have been more willing to join an advocacy formation and, in the course of time, as a result of further experience with the Democratic Party and association with others in LPA, been in on the ground floor to constitute the new party.

Second, as an advocacy group, the LPA could have avoided the situation of the Labor Party's proclaiming itself a political party competing with the bosses' two parties, only to have its affiliates campaign for and contribute money to candidates put up by one of those two parties. When the time finally became ripe for establishing a labor party based on the unions, it could have been with the understanding that union affiliates were bound to support that party's candidates and none other (as is the practice with other labor parties around the globe).

Third, LPA could also have avoided the Labor Party's single-dimensional method of functioning, i.e., focusing on campaigns on issues but avoiding the electoral arena. LPA could have engaged in the same issue campaigns—which all agree are indispensable, whatever the form of organization—while at the same time making a central part of its work promoting the objective of running independent labor candidates for elective office.

In any event, we are a party now and I am not proposing here that we change our name back to an advocacy organization. However, what we can do, even as a party, is assume more of an advocacy function than we have previously, urging unions to field independent  working class candidates for political office as a preparatory step for the day when the Labor Party can field candidates appearing on the ballot as Party candidates.

The British Experience
The forerunner of the British Labour Party was the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) created on February 26-27, 1900 at a conference in London hosted by the Trades Union Congress. Delegates from over 70 organizations attended including some unions, the Social Democratic Federation, Fabians, and the Independent Labor Party. This conference voted 102-3 in favor of the working class seeking representation in Parliament. The conference created no formal “party” and the new formation had no members, only organizations affiliated with it. Yet in that very first year of its existence, two trade unionists active in the LRC were elected to the House of Commons!

How could that have happened so quickly? Because the LRC—and the British Labour Party whose establishment would soon follow—arose out of the tempestuous struggles of the working class during the previous two decades. Those were years of sharp class struggle, marked by the successful organizing of unskilled workers, which changed the face of the British labor movement from one dominated by skilled workers defending their relatively privileged status in the economy to a force more directly engaged in conflict with the employers and their two principal parties—the Conservatives and the Liberals. Strikes, demonstrations and mass meetings; actions by police, armed guards and courts to break strikes; recruitment of scabs; massive unemployment; formation of the Eight Hour League; women workers playing a much more prominent role in working class struggles; inroads made in organizing agricultural workers — these were all the order of the day.

Inevitably, the Trades Union Congress came under pressure to break from its alliance with the Liberal Party so in 1906 the LRC gave way to the Labour Party, whose growth was meteoric. From 1906 to 1914, the number of constituency parties affiliated to the Labour Party rose from 73 to 179. By 1918, Labour had replaced the Liberals as the main opposition party to the Conservatives, and in 1924 for the first time the Labour Party formed the government, albeit as a minority party.

The British experience is cited here to show that in that country as well as in other industrial nations, labor parties were created at a time when labor was experiencing an upsurge, whereas in the U.S. the labor movement had been in retreat for decades immediately prior to the birth of the Labor Party. Other labor parties had the capacity and consciousness to run candidates from the get go. That was not true in the same way for the Labor Party in the U.S.

At the Labor Party's 2002 Washington D.C. convention, delegates who strongly favored independent labor political action and the running of Labor Party candidates where possible, proposed an Electoral Commission to explore what initiatives might reasonably be taken. But even though the Labor Party's convention held 1998 in Pittsburgh had approved running candidates if certain criteria were met, the proposal to set up a commission to help implement that program was rejected.

Other Forms of Electoral Action
I believe that the Labor Party made a major mistake in viewing electoral action only through the narrow prism of running or not running Labor Party candidates. If we were not in a position to run candidates in our own name -- with possible exceptions here and there—the Party should have adopted as one of its main priorities a policy of urging affiliated and unaffiliated unions, wherever possible, to run independent candidates from their ranks for office, perhaps local office at the beginning. This would have been a transitional step, one that might have helped us acquire valuable experiences in preparation for the day when the Party would be in a better position to compete directly in the electoral arena, putting up Labor Party candidates. The main point is this: electoral action should be a central activity for a labor party. Such activity has too often been viewed with a jaundiced eye by many in the Labor Party, who mistakenly thought we would achieve sizable growth by participating in campaigns on issues like jobs, health care, education, and labor law reform. Such campaigns are essential but they do not sufficiently distinguish the party or provide it with the needed visibility the way that running candidates would. Nor have the Party's campaigns on issues resulted in the kind of membership growth that had been envisioned or hoped for.

The experience of the Greens and the Working Families Party, while their approach to electoral politics differs fundamentally from ours, does at least prove that there are opportunities for third parties to contest successfully with the two major parties. These two parties have elected more than 200 of their candidates to local offices. Many people in this country are thoroughly disgusted with both the Democratic and Republican parties, and are searching for an alternative voice.  The Labor Party should help provide that alternative, if not under our own banner at present then at least by encouraging unions to do so.

The Labor Party's Position in the 2004 Elections
The Labor Party's founding slogan was “The Bosses Have Two Parties, Now We Have Our Own!” Many of us who met in Cleveland in 1996 certainly did not anticipate that only eight years later the Labor Party would, in effect, be calling for the election of the presidential candidate of one of the bosses' two parties.

Some may claim that the Labor Party took no such position, but to make such a claim is to engage in a form of contorted verbal gymnastics that defies all reason.

The Party's position, as expressed in a number of articles in the Labor Party Press, was unmistakable: “Bush is a menace, he must be defeated.” But how could he be defeated? The obvious answer, though unstated, was to elect Kerry. No matter how the formulations were hedged, or qualified, or followed by warnings that Kerry and the Democrats should not be relied upon, or that the struggle for our goals would have to continue after the election regardless of who won, the message was clear: “Defeat Bush at all costs! Elect Kerry.”   

By way of a recent example, there is this statement in the September/October 2004 Labor Party Press: “Persuasive arguments have been made that Bush is truly the ‘greater evil’ and must be defeated in November.”

The Call to the Party's October 17-18, 2003 health care conference in Chicago stated in part, “Most of us have concluded that the removal of the Bush administration and a large number of senators and congressional representatives who support its hostile agenda is our highest political priority in the next year. It is clear that the crisis in health care has reached epic proportions in the United States and that the current political misleaders are very vulnerable when this issue is fully explained to the electorate. Please join us for what will be an exciting, challenging exchange of ideas and what can be a decisive event in our preparation for putting George W. Bush and his cohorts on the unemployment line where they belong.”

The Ohio State Labor Party's State Council unanimously disagreed with this formulation.  In a September 20, 2003 memo sent to the national office, the State Council wrote:

“The statement's political line [referring to the one quoted above] contravenes what the Labor Party is, what it stands for, and, more specifically, its position on electoral action.

“Our ‘highest political priority in the next year’ is to build a movement independent of both political parties which fights for the interests of the working class. Our particular focus is on those issues which the Labor Party has prioritized: Just Health Care, workers' rights, and tuition-free higher education. To this list, we would add opposing the U.S. war on the people of Iraq and the occupation of that country, a position which the Labor Party correctly adopted.

“The Labor Party's statement quoted above implicitly calls for electing Democratic Party politicians at all federal levels. There is no other way to read it. If our ‘highest political priority’ is ‘putting George W. Bush and his cronies on the unemployment line,’ how else can that realistically be achieved in 2004 other than by electing Democratic Party politicians to replace them? (Emphasis in the original)

“The statement is clearly in violation of the letter and spirit of the Labor Party's position on electoral action, which emphasizes, ‘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. Within that framework of class independence, with the ultimate goal of achieving power, we accept the electoral tactic of running candidates.”

From the very inception of the Labor Party, the understanding was that while affiliates were free, on their own, to endorse and campaign for any candidates they wished, the Labor Party would not endorse candidates put up by any other political party or call for their election. That agreement was breached here when the Labor Party adopted the position it did regarding the 2004 presidential election.

Leave aside for the moment the basic point that as designated representative of the Democratic Party, Kerry's fundamental allegiance was to the millionaires and billionaires who control that party.  Look at his record: 

He had no jobs program. He vehemently opposed government-sponsored measures to put the unemployed back to work, including a public works program. He said it was up to the market to provide jobs.

He is pro-war, calling for waging the war against Iraq more ?smartly? and increasing U.S. troops by 40,000. He said he could get more countries to commit troops to defeat the Iraq insurgency. He categorically rejected calling for withdrawal of U.S. and foreign troops and letting the Iraqi people decide their own future.

He called for a tougher line against Iran and North Korea, and said something had to be done to get rid of the democratically elected Chavez government in Venezuela.

He offered ultra-hawk John McCain both the vice presidential nomination and the Secretary of Defense position.

He voted for the Patriot Act and never called for its repeal.

He ignored the special needs of African Americans and other oppressed nationalities. He previously called for weakening affirmative action.

He previously came out against teacher tenure protection. 

He rejected single-payer universal health care, calling instead for subsidies to businesses to encourage them to provide coverage.

He voted to gut welfare rights protection and to shred the safety net.

He voted for NAFTA, the WTO and the other “free trade” agreements.

Then, of course, there is the matter of Kerry's conduct after the polls closed and the preliminary results were announced. He rushed to concede the election to Bush before many votes were counted, despite widespread voter suppression and fraud. This was followed by his nauseating concession speech calling for cooperation and unity with the Bush administration. (“In the days ahead, we must find a common cause. We must join in common effort, without remorse or recrimination, without anger or rancor.”)

No, there is nothing “persuasive” about supporting Kerry, no matter how reactionary Bush is. In every presidential election, the bosses put up candidates from each of the major parties, one of which, to one degree or another, is invariably worse than the other. The key point for our purposes is that both candidates are in fundamental agreement on the overriding issues of concern to the working class, and both are loyal servants of the employers. The bottom line is that there is no justification for the Labor Party to call for a vote for either of these candidates. We talk about convincing labor to break with the Democratic Party. But our efforts to do this are undermined when we concede that there are persuasive reasons for voting for their candidate.

Decision Making in the Labor Party
Before projecting a path forward for the Labor Party in this post-November 2 period, it is important to review how important policy decisions are made by the Party.

Start with the three Labor Party conventions. While criticisms can be made of the inordinate amount of time given speakers at the expense of more in-depth discussion and debate by delegates, these conventions represented a high form of internal party democracy. Delegates were able to introduce resolutions and have them debated and voted upon. They could campaign in advance for adoption of resolutions they favored, which partially offset the abbreviated time allowed for debate.

But observing democratic decision making in the Labor Party and ensuring that affiliated organizations and members have a real voice in helping to decide policy questions leave a lot to be desired, and changes are surely in order. To cite one major example: Well before the 2004 election, the Interim National Council (INC) should have issued a draft statement outlining its proposed position on the elections and inviting comment. That was not done.  

Moreover, more needs to be done to involve members in the life of the Party. For example, soon after the Party's founding convention a proposal was made to establish a Health Care Commission made up of representatives of Party affiliates actively involved in health care work. The idea was that these representatives would meet every six months or so to report on the work of their groups, learn from each other's experiences, discuss how they might be able to coordinate their efforts, and decide what recommendations they might make to strengthen the Party's health care work as a whole. Unfortunately, the proposal to form such a commission was rejected.

A proposal was also made to convene regional Labor Party conferences. The purpose of such conferences, as envisioned, was to bring Party members together, evaluate work on the principal campaigns, and provide a forum for ideas and suggestions as to what the Party should be doing or doing differently. Without such conferences, concern was expressed that local Labor Party chapters would be functioning in isolation and denied the opportunity to learn what other chapters and affiliates were doing and thus gain a wider perspective and understanding. However, the proposal to hold the regional conferences was rejected.

Some Specific Proposals
Looking to the future and drawing upon the above, I propose the following for consideration by the INC:

1.      A critical evaluation of the political line taken by the Labor Party in the recently concluded presidential election. A clear-cut decision should be made as to whether the Labor Party will be true to the principles upon which it was founded for independent working class political action or whether in the future the Party will again be drawn into supporting the election of “lesser evil” candidates.

2.      Establish an Electoral Commission whose primary function in the period ahead would be to encourage unions to run independent candidates for office with the understanding that such candidates agree to run on the unions' programs and be accountable to those unions. Obviously this would have to be done on a selective basis with the aim being to show concrete examples of success, not limited to giving abstract theoretical advice on the importance of running labor candidates. The key point is that the Labor Party must find ways and means to intervene in the electoral arena and not abandon it to the bosses? two parties or to other third parties whose policies we disagree with.

3.      Establish a Health Care Commission and other commissions as needed.

4.      Build relations with leaders and members of United States Labor Against the War and the Million Worker March and urge them to join the Labor Party. 

5.      Organize regional conferences to reassemble the Party's forces, review work being done on the Party's major campaigns, hear reports from its commissions, examine its organizational status and what can be done to strengthen it, evaluate its publications, set recruiting goals, and otherwise help set direction for the Party in the new period we are entering. Convene a national conference as a follow-up to the regional conferences.

6.      Provide space in the Labor Party Press for ideas and suggestions from members, and for airing dissenting views.

7.      Issue and distribute widely a new Labor Party pamphlet with the suggested title, “What Kind of Future Does Labor Have With the Democratic Party?” This pamphlet could document how the Democratic Party is owned lock, stock and barrel by the big corporations; how it has led labor from one defeat to the next; how dim this party's prospects are for overcoming its present bankrupt state; how labor's role in the party is no more than that of junior partner with no real power, despite the fact that it provides the foot soldiers for its campaigns and in 2004 spent hundreds of millions of workers' dollars to support the party's candidates; how labor has been sold out by this party time after time, even when the party wins an election (e.g., approval of NAFTA and other trade pacts under Clinton); how this party continues to move to the right, with anti-choice Harry Reid being elected the new Democratic minority leader in the Senate and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner being touted as the rising new star for the Democratic Party, despite the deep cuts in social programs he engineered as governor; and how the labor movement has given this party its all and gotten back nothing of substance in return.

The pamphlet should urge labor to spearhead the formation of a new coalition made up of unions and their natural allies—unorganized workers, communities of color, the women's movement, immigrants, family farmers, supporters of civil rights and civil liberties, low income and impoverished workers, gay and lesbian groups like Pride at Work, and progressives from across the board. Such a coalition, with a consistent working class program, could be a magnet for winning over and bringing to the polls the 40% of eligible voters who did not bother to vote on November 2, but who could be motivated to do so in the future by a coalition that truly represents their interests. A suggested name for the proposed new coalition: “Labor Party”—either the one we are currently working to revitalize or one that remains to be created, which would no doubt incorporate much of our program, tradition and vision.

Build the Labor Party!
The Labor Party has survived this very difficult period with its affiliates still on board, a national leadership due to meet this December, a paper that continues to be published, and a national organizer, Mark Dudzic, who is a dedicated trade unionist and committed to maintaining and building the Party. It also has a well constructed program and pools of activists in a number of areas who are working to implement that program.

In assessing the Labor Party's prospects for the future, two questions have to be asked. The first is whether the goal of a mass labor party based on the unions remains something worth fighting for. For those who answer that question yes, the next question is whether there is any other formation on the scene today that can better advance the labor party perspective than the Labor Party. I submit there is not.

If there is one lesson to be learned from what happened November 2, it is that we need a mass labor party in the U.S. now more than ever.

The Labor Party is no different from workers' parties in other countries. All have gone through difficult days and most have rebounded. The British Labour Party has in the past experienced a decimation of its ranks in Parliament, only to recoup later and experience rapid growth.

Today's British Labour Party is no model for us, but that only underscores the need for continuous internal debate within the Labor Party regarding the Party's direction, which will permit a change in direction where necessary.

Hopefully, more Party members and those who have left the Party but still believe in the cause of independent working class political action will now join in helping the Party resolve its problems and move forward. We need to seize the moment and do whatever we can to transform the great disappointment that labor is experiencing as a result of the November 2 election into determination to chart a new course that will lead to breaking out of the two party stranglehold. The Labor Party has a role to play in making this happen.

November 22, 2004