Staying the Course
The Second Constitutional Convention
of the Labor Party
Washington, D. C., July 25–28, 2002
by Bob Mast, NWU/UAW, Detroit Metro Labor Party
Prior to the recent national
convention of the Labor Party, some activists were cautious about the
future of the party while others were skeptical, and for good reason. The party at all levels had suffered decline in membership and
program over the past several years. The LP union base had
experienced some erosion from certain structural and financial changes,
while the struggle to organize, or even maintain the status quo, had grown
harder in the union movement.
Our local LP chapters were treading water or drowning in the right wing tidal wave that accompanies globalized capitalism in crisis, in a period of little opposition. The chapters suffered from political confusion over whether to vote for Nader, agitate for LP electoral capability, and/or go with the AFL-CIO flow. Some chapters were weakened or died from the hemorrhaging caused by what some call sectarian wrangling. Other chapters suffered from the inability or refusal to devise and carry out a strategic plan. An impaired national LP headquarters was unable to provide the analysis, resources, and guidance we all needed. A few activists concluded that this was not a real labor party and should be abandoned, while others took a wait-and-see attitude.
But there were stalwarts around the country who believed in the essence and program of the Labor Party, designed by 1400 delegates at the 1996 founding convention in Cleveland. They wanted it to stay the course at this Second Constitutional Convention, and they would go to Washington to help make that happen. I was one of four activists from Detroit who joined the trickles of delegates from all over the country. They came by auto, bus, train, and air, swelling into a hardy band of over 500 delegates and participants.
Our ten hour car ride from Detroit to Washington, interrupted by a restaurant stop in the foggy hills of Pennsylvania, was characterized by a gentle, working class, male approach to our many subjects of discourse. Our cast of four was multiracial, union-oriented, LP-grounded, and life-experienced.. Our humor and laughter incessantly was brought down to earth by a return to practical discussion, interspersed with theory, on the seriousness of our present mission and the politics that might result from the convention. We envisioned a revitalized Detroit LP and became increasingly dedicated to that end as the miles passed. And yes, there was mild apprehension about this convention staying the course. We hoped it would.
I think our apprehension diminished shortly after we arrived in the late afternoon at the Capital Hilton, one day late. Our first glimpse of the Convention was to witness hundreds returning from a march and rally in front of the Chamber of Commerce, a block from the White House. The Convention had adjourned to protest Fast Track legislation being brought at that moment to the floor of the House of Representatives. Our marching, chanting, singing comrades — with their signs, badges, and slogans — were a shot in the arm. The Detroit delegation sensed that good things were brewing, and indeed they were.
The next two days were jammed with caucuses, political jockeying, confusion, dreaming, debating, parliamentarianism — the stuff conventions are made of. Participants literally were from all over the country. According to an initial report by Bill Onasch — Kansas City LP, and newly chosen member of the LP Interim National Council — the 400-plus official delegates hailed from six international unions, 54 affiliated or endorsing labor bodies, five state LPs, and 18 local LPs. Like the former two conventions, this one was dominated by those unions that formed the LP and continue to support it. They are the best of organized labor, provide the lions share of funding, and therefore still are the rightful leaders of a fledgling party.
The grass roots, multiracial character of the LP was dramatically confirmed again with the energized presence of affiliated worker-supportive organizations like the Kensington Welfare Rights Union of Philadelphia and the Women’s Economic Agenda of California. Their loyalty to the LP program and unyielding enthusiasm for peoples’ rights deeply influenced the tone and morale of this convention.
In contrast, a few vocal individuals, through parliamentary maneuvering and dissident objection, apparently sought to put in jeopardy the convention’s thrust to hold the course. Their devotion to the idea of a more just society cannot be seriously argued, and their political analyses have serious merit. However, some well-meaning individuals seem hell-bent on certifying their political purity or that of an unspoken group. At this delicate juncture in LP experience, such behavior is to the detriment of organizational solidarity and comradeship, and therefore is destructive.
As the convention hours passed I found myself voting more with main stream motions to call the question and stop debate, and then voting for the resolutions designed to stay the course by the various official committees. Dispute and intolerance gave way to something like, “let’s certify the present constitution, program, and style of work, and get on with party building.”
Lest this begins to read like support for topdown bureaucratic structure, I declare that I have witnessed more democracy in the LP at all levels than can be found today in most serious action bodies. Indeed, since the LP’s founding in 1996 I’ve hoped for MORE guidance and control from above. Democracy in our complex times doesn’t work well without structure, rules, resources, objectives, and a plan. If the LP mission is to gain power by and with the working class, we require some kind of model of centralized democracy that sparks creativity and participation at the local and individual levels, while patient oversight comes from the national.
In some ways the ten hour return drive from DC to Detroit was more thoughtful than the ride two days earlier. The final banging of the convention gavel signified a renewed challenge to us and all those dedicated to the LP mission and program. That gavel loaded our plates with responsibility.
Speaking for myself, though I was keenly influenced by my Detroit LP comrades, the times are right to build the present Labor Party. Its program is meant for, and appeals to, all working and/or oppressed people. It calls for a massive restructuring of the way economic, political, and social affairs are handled in this country. It seeks to redirect the flow of social policy and national resources away from the top and towards the bottom. The program specifies that domestic corporate-finance must be reigned in, shed of its unilateral power, torn from globalized economic attachments, and forced to bear its proportionate cost for repair of the damage it has done to workers and society. The LPs goal is the achievement of economic democracy in the most comprehensive and radical sense of that term. This requires a political process that involves unions at the base (not the top) in close alliance with progressive community institutions of all kinds.
The party’s operations and apparatus can be improved as activists work to find the way. Patience, cooperation, and outreach must be utilized using time-tested organizing techniques already perfected by unions and community groups. The 2002 convention left open the specific tactics to be employed by organizers. Those tactics certainly must correspond with the particular political economy of a region along with its peculiar mix of history and culture. Local autonomy illustrates LP democracy at this point in time and can be a major strength if taken seriously.