Initial Report on the Labor Party Convention

by Bill Onasch

A note for those not familiar with the Labor Party: the Labor Party is an issue/action oriented political organization formally launched at a 1996 Founding Convention. Its foundation rests on affiliated and endorsing unions. There are also community chapters and organizing committees. While the Labor Party depends upon union support it is open to all who agree with its perspectives—union, unorganized, self-employed, students, unemployed. For more information go to the Labor Party national site  or the Kansas City Labor Party.

More than 400 delegates and observers gathered at the Capital Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC July 25–28 for the Labor Party’s Second Constitutional Convention. Represented were six international unions; 49 affiliated state and local union bodies; five endorsing locals; five state Labor Party bodies; 18 LP local chapters and organizing committees; and several worker organizations affiliated to LP such as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia and the Women’s Economic Agenda.

Among those in attendance were the principal officers of the United Steelworkers; United Mine Workers; United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE); the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC); the South Carolina state AFL-CIO; the New Jersey Industrial Union Council; the California Nurses Association (CNA); the Midwest Board of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees (UNITE); and the largest Teamsters Local in the country. The convention was welcomed by the President of the Metropolitan Washington Council, the AFL-CIO central labor body.

Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts gave some brief remarks to the gathering before rushing off to help with efforts to rescue the nine trapped coal miners in Pennsylvania. Even though that mine is nonunion the UMW felt a duty to come to the assistance of miners in need.

Populist radio personality Jim Hightower had been scheduled to give the keynote address but called in sick. On very short notice Farm Labor Organizing Committee President Baldemar Velasquez stepped up to the plate and gave a both thoughtful and rousing presentation. He traced many of today’s problems to the decision by the labor movement decades ago to give up on the goal of fighting for a social wage covering all in favor of negotiating good wages, and essential benefits such as health insurance and pensions, just for their own members. This undermined solidarity and gave incentive to the bosses to eliminate or move the best jobs. Velasquez explained how his union not only organized the farm workers in the field but also sought to make common cause with their nominal employers—family farmers—against the agribusiness giants who really control and profit from farm production. After winning earlier victories in Ohio with Campbell Soup, Heinz, and others FLOC has moved to concentrate on Mt Olive Pickel, largely based in the south. Velasquez referred to the Deep South as America’s “free trade zone.” Many of the immigrant farm laborers being organized by FLOC—whether here legally through “guest” worker programs or smuggled across the border by “coyotes” demanding huge payments—are essentially indentured workers.

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard told the delegates he had a tough time choosing which of the many crises facing labor to talk about. Gerard is Canadian and a firm supporter of that country’s much slandered health care system. He recounted how this was won through a long, hard, grass-roots struggle that achieved initial victories in a few provinces before securing a nation-wide system. He commended the Labor Party for its  campaign and urged delegates to continue to challenge labor to fight for real universal health care. Gerard also touched on the recent corporate scandals. He quoted estimates that pension funds have lost seven trillion dollars as a result of the fallout from Enron, WorldCom, etc. He allowed this was not a case of a few bad apples in the barrel—the apple itself was rotten to the core. Of course the Steelworkers have been very active in the fight against globalization. Their union has lost 100,000 jobs in just the past three years due to trade agreements. They have supported—with some modest success—efforts of Mexican workers to organize and improve their conditions. But Gerard noted that the bosses have responded to these gains by closing thousands of maquiladora plants—and moving jobs to still cheaper labor markets.

The trade issue in fact dictated a change in the convention’s agenda. A Fair Trade Panel, consisting of UE Secretary-Treasurer Bruce Kipple, Patricia Campos from the UNITE legislative department, and Lori Wallach, Director of Public Citizen’s Global trade Watch, had been scheduled for Friday afternoon. But, it turned out, that was when Fast Track was being brought on to the House floor. The panelists were urgently needed on Capitol Hill. The convention decided to help the efforts to stop Fast Track by organizing a march. There wasn’t time to get permits and we knew security forces around both the Capitol and White House would be jittery. We chose as our focus a building only about a block from the White House—the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce. But, as you know, the delegates marching, shouting, and singing—and the thousands of last minute phone calls, e-mails, and faxes mobilized by labor—were not sufficient. Enough Democrat “friends of labor” joined the Republicans to give Bush a free hand to negotiate further deals to help the multinational corporations.

Other scheduled panels did take place: Just Health Care; Workers Rights; and Free Higher Education.

On Saturday delegates made some essentially housekeeping changes to the Constitution and discussed recommendations from the Resolutions Committee.

This was followed by discussion about more practical organizing and action strategies, keynoted and moderated by Joyce Mills from the CNA.

The sometimes heated debate was ably handled by convention co-chairs Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association and Brenda Stokely, President of AFSCME District Council 1707.

Delegates were impressed by a presentation by one of the PACE workers locked out of their jobs at an Oklahoma Continental Carbon plant. An on the spot passing of the hat netted over two thousand dollars for their relief fund.

Chapter and Local Organizing Committee delegates caucused to elect the five positions on the interim National Council allotted to chapters on a regional basis. Those elected were Mark Diamondstein, representing the South; Lisa Frank, Mid Atlantic; Gary Holloway, West; and yours truly from the Midwest/Plains.

There’s no doubt that the Labor Party in its present form could have never been created without the dedicated, patient, determined efforts of Tony Mazzocchi. Tony has earned the respect of many through his decades of struggle in the labor movement. Tony is now seriously ill and will be unable to play his customary leadership role. He spoke twice only very briefly at the convention. There was a moving display of genuine tribute for Tony that cut across all factional divisions among the delegates. All pledged to redouble efforts to keep this project we owe to Tony going and growing.

Soon I will post a more analytical article about the present and future for the Labor Party. We’ll provide links to other articles, and convention documents, as they become available online.

Those of you in the Kansas City area are invited to a report back meeting at Tony Saper’s house on Labor Day—more details about this gathering later.