As Labor Party's July 2002 Convention Approaches

Looking Again at the Labor Party Project

by Bill Onasch

With another Labor Party convention (the third one) coming up in late July of this year (July 25–28, 2002), we think it appropriate to reprint the following article. Even though it was written a year ago, in March 2001, it seems to us still very timely. It should help readers orient themselves on the fundamental issues that will be faced at the July 2002 convention by the still nascent Labor Party, a “nucleus of a nucleus” within the union movement.

The author has posted a valuable three-part series entitled “Workers and Electoral Politics” on the “Labor Advocate Online” part of his web site.  We have posted edited versions on our web site of “Part One (an overall assessment of the 2000 election), and Part Two—The Nader Factor.” The following is an edited version of the final section of Part Three—“Three Major Strategies.” Earlier sections were entitled “Gompers’s Ghost” and “Greens and Populists.”  

Some historical background is in order to help put the labor party movement of the 1990s and today in perspective. The postWorld War II strike wave of 194546 was followed by the beginning of the Cold War and the imposition of the Taft-Hartley Act—a straitjacket on the union movement that is still in force; soon the McCarthyite witch hunt of the late 1940s and early 1950s, accompanied by rising prosperity, drove out or silenced almost all radicals in the unions. Only after the civil rights movement, the antiVietnam War movement, and the radicalization of the 1960s and 70s broke the stifling atmosphere of witch hunt-enforced “anti-Communist” conformism did radical voices again begin to be heard in the unions. The bosses’ “one-sided class war” against the workers since the 1970s has acutely posed the need for an effective fightback strategy. The Labor Party program meets an important part of that need.

After the strike wave of 1945–46, and the accompanying upsurge of class struggle, the movement for a labor party languished for decades. It began to revive in the 1990s due to an initiative taken by the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCAW), which is now part of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE). In 1989–90 OCAW polled its membership and found that over 55 percent characterized the Democrats and Republicans as more responsive to corporate interests than worker interests and said that a new party should be considered.

Suspecting that most of the working class shared these sentiments, OCAW decided to test the waters by launching a new organization—Labor Party Advocates (LPA). Veteran OCAW leader Tony Mazzocchi was assigned to work full-time organizing LPA. Over the next few years Mazzocchi, assisted by the late Bob Kasen, patiently and tirelessly approached every union gathering that would listen, promoting the idea of a Labor Party.

For example, Mazzocchi came to Kansas City in February 1994 and while in town joined a debate, organized by the Institute for Labor Studies, with labor supporters of the Democrat and Reform parties. A Kansas City Area Chapter of LPA was formed. The following year KCALPA cosponsored a well-attended conference on Labor and Politics that included Chris Townsend, Washington Legislative Representative for the UE, speaking for LPA. The chapter held a series of community meetings, getting input for what should be in a Labor Party platform.

Gradually an impressive list of LPA endorsing organizations was assembled. Early on LPA won the support of a small independent union that had always favored a Labor Party—the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE). Later, another union with a strong radical tradition that survived the McCarthy era joined in—the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Meanwhile, in 1993, a new leadership in the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE) signed on, and later, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) did too. The California Nurses Association and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee likewise eagerly embraced LPA. And just before LPA's first convention, the United Mine Workers (UMWA) got on board. In addition, the California State Council of Carpenters, several local labor councils, and dozens of local unions endorsed as well—including Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287 in Kansas City.

The Labor Party's Founding Convention was held in Cleveland in June 1996. Over 1,400 delegates and observers attended its lively sessions. This impressive gathering, displaying the full diversity of the working class throughout the country, functioning in a democratic atmosphere unknown in most large organizations, was pointedly ignored by the mass media. Not even CSPAN would cover it. Only the local Cleveland paper ran a couple of brief articles. Those of us in attendance recognized right away that breaking through this iron curtain of noncoverage by the boss-controlled media was not going to be easy. But that didn't deter us from taking care of business.

The delegates determined that it was time to move beyond the initial advocates stage and declared the Labor Party launched. That Founding Convention hammered out the Labor Party program—“A Call for Economic Justice.” A Constitution and an Implementation Agreement were also approved to set the rules for the party's functioning.

It was to be a party of a different type. The Founding Convention resolved that the Labor Party would not run or endorse candidates for office. Instead the party would concentrate on issue campaigns, convincing more unions to affiliate, and recruiting individual members both in the unions and in the community. An Electoral Policy Commission was established to bring in recommendations for electoral activity—if any—to the next convention.

The Founding Convention made clear that the Labor Party—especially in its formative period—is based on unions. Even though they represent a minority of workers, the unions are the only significant mass organizations of the working class. That's where you have to start. That's where the needed material resources are to be found.

At the same time the Labor Party established itself as a party for the whole working class. The program was formulated for class interests—not just the narrow focus of particular unions. Membership was opened up to anyone who agreed with the Labor Party perspective, union member or not. And community-based chapters were projected to build a mass base beyond the unions.

The second convention, called the “First Constitutional Convention,” was held in Pittsburgh in November 1998, also attended by more than 1,400. It adopted an Electoral Strategy and launched four issue campaigns: Just Health Care; Workplace Bill of Rights; Fair Trade Campaign; and Protect Social Security.

The Electoral Strategy resolution is, in my opinion, the best statement on this question coming out of the American labor movement to date. It is short enough to reproduce in full here:

Electoral Strategy

I. Introduction

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 this framework of class independence, with the ultimate goal of achieving power, we accept the electoral tactic of running candidates.

The Labor Party will run candidates for public office in order to elect representatives to positions where they can help enact and enforce laws and policies to benefit the working class. We will run at governmental levels where we can best advance the goals and priorities of the Labor Party. Unlike other political parties, public officials elected by the Labor Party will be accountable to the party membership and required to follow the positions outlined in the party platform.

Although we accept electoral politics as an important tactic, we do not see it as the only tool needed to achieve working class power. Unlike other political parties, the Labor Party will be active before, during and between elections, building solidarity in our communities, workplaces, and unions.

Labor Party candidates will be run only where our basic organizational criteria are met. The Labor Party will build into its electoral campaigns, and the periods between them, procedures to ensure political education and mobilization of the working class, further development of the party structure and growth in membership, and strengthened relationships to community and labor allies.

II. Labor Party Candidates

The Labor Party will support only candidates for office who are Labor Party members running solely as Labor Party candidates. The Labor Party will not endorse any other candidates.

III. Accountability

The Labor Party is not politics as usual — we are a party of principle. Candidates shall be chosen by the members through convention at the appropriate level, not through primary. Once elected, officials are responsible to the party on core issues in the Labor Party platform. When issues arise that are not in the platform, officials shall consult with LP members for guidance. Elected officials who do not abide by the LP platform will not be allowed to run for re-election as LP candidates.

IV. State and Federal Laws

The Labor Party National Council will develop guidelines, based on legal counsel, to ensure that the Labor Party electoral campaigns meet the requirements of federal and state laws.

V. Implementation

The LP National Council will appoint a diverse committee to review all applications for Labor Party electoral campaigns. This review process will allow for consultation and discussion between the Labor Party National Electoral Committee and the subordinate body applying for campaign approval. The decision of the Committee may be appealed to the National Council. The National Council may reserve final approval for itself. The Labor Party National Council shall issue in advance of each electoral season a clear statement of the types of districts that are a priority for LP electoral campaigns.

VI. Criteria for Running Candidates

The criteria are designed to ensure that Labor Party candidates can run credible campaigns to win office. A national committee of the Labor Party will review all applications for Labor Party electoral campaigns. In reviewing each application, the committee will use the criteria to assess whether a credible campaign can be run. An electoral effort will not be blocked based on any single item (included in A, B, and C) not being met if there are sufficient strengths in other areas to overcome particular shortcomings.

A. Labor Party Structural Issues

1. A chartered State Labor Party is preferred.

2. The proposed electoral campaign has the support of the state Labor Party. State organizations must use the national guidelines in evaluating campaigns.

B. Analysis of Electoral District

A political impact statement that includes the economics and demography of the target district, the resources and politics of the incumbent, the nature of the opposition, the history of recent      elections, the current political issues in the district and the level of working-class activism. The statement shall address how the campaign fits national LP priorities.

C. Campaign Resources

1. Sufficient election volunteers to cover precincts.

2. Endorsing unions represent a significant portion of area union membership, sufficient to ensure that LP candidate will be seen as the labor candidate.

3. A significant number of LP members in the district, sufficient to indicate that we can persuade district residents.

4. Credible candidate, able to articulate LP program.

5. Campaign financing plan, including cash in hand.

6. Campaign committee reflecting the demographics of the district.

7. Campaign manager prepared to carry out the campaign.

8. Campaign plan that includes tactics and goals for growth of the party.

9. Endorsements or support from local community organizations.

Local party structures and State parties should notify the national Labor Party at least one year in advance, when possible, when planning to run candidates.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Labor Party

The Labor Party is so new and different it generates many honest questions, as well as some cynically posed. Here are some FAQs I developed on the Kansas City Labor Party site:

Isn't labor too narrow a base for an effective political party? After all, unions represent only a small percentage of the population.

We view “labor” as being all working people—union members or not. It is true that due to the restructuring of the U.S. economy union membership as a percentage of the work force has declined. Still, there are about 15 million union members. When you add in family members and retirees, union households make up close to a quarter of the population. Other than churches there are no organizations that come anywhere close to the size and power of unions. That's why we are building the foundation of our party on this organized section of the working class. At the same time we have community chapters and organizing committees—such as the Kansas City Area Chapter—that are open to all who agree with our aims.

But a lot of people don't think of themselves as “labor.” Wouldn't it be better to have a name with a broader appeal?

We want a name that identifies who we are and whose interests we advance. There is a problem that class lines have become obscured in our country. Most people probably would identify with the meaningless term “middle class” rather than the designation “working class,” which better identifies how they really fit into the economic and power structure of our society. Some political activists like to talk about serving “the people.” “The people" includes Bill Gates, the cashier down at the QuikTrip, and the homeless person sleeping under the bridge. You can't honestly and effectively promote the interests of all “the people.” Others like the term “populist.” But this label has been applied to very diverse figures, from Pat Buchanan and David Duke, on the one hand, to Jim Hightower and Ralph Nader, on the other. Part of our job is to educate working people about their class interests. And we don't want to trick anybody. We are out to promote the interests of working people and realize full well that this will conflict with the interests of some of “the people”—bosses and bankers for example.

How can we take seriously a party that doesn't run candidates for office?

The Labor Party's Electoral Strategy was developed after a two-year discussion within the party. First of all, we don't see elections as the be-all and end-all of politics. The union movement, the civil rights movement, and other movements rooted among working people, achieved political gains largely outside the electoral process. Strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, teach-ins, etc., can also be political activity—and the Labor Party participates in such actions. We support a multi-faceted approach to politics, combining action in the streets with action at the ballot box. The Labor Party has also been involved in some forms of electoral campaigns. In several Massachusetts communities the Labor Party has put propositions supporting Just Health Care on the ballot—and won. The Kansas City Area Chapter, for example, has taken positions on several ballot referenda.

We also intend to run candidates for office—and to get them elected so that we can implement our program. But to do that, we need to be a lot stronger. We aim to not only win over more unions but also to build a mass membership base in the communities. At this stage we think it would be counterproductive to run what would be seen as token candidates.

If the Labor Party's not running candidates, does this mean I can't vote for anybody if I join the Labor Party?

While the Labor Party has a strict policy of not endorsing candidates as an organization, individual members can vote for candidates of their personal choice. In 1996 some LP members reluctantly cast a vote for Clinton as a “lesser evil” to Dole. A few cast protest votes for Perot. Others voted for Ralph Nader, or one of the socialist candidates. And quite a few joined the majority of the working class and didn't vote at all. We say vote or not vote as you please—but let's not get diverted from the task of building a party of our own.

What's it take to join the Labor Party? What would be expected of me as a member?

If you're an adult living in the United States, and agree with the Labor Party's perspective, you're eligible to join. Fill out the membership application form, enclose with a check for twenty dollars (ten dollars if you're retired, unemployed, or earn less than ten dollars an hour), and mail it to the address on the form. (Sorry, no e-commerce resources yet.)

Everyone has a unique personal situation. The minimum requirement for membership is that you pay your dues. If you have some time and energy available, there are many LP action campaigns you can become involved in, such as around health care and Social Security. Some unions have Labor Party committees, and there are Labor Party Chapters and Local Organizing Committees in many communities (see the list of State and Local Chapters and Organizing Committees on the Labor Party web site, under “Labor Party Bodies”).

Conclusion: A Working Class Perspective

The U.S. working class is entering a very crucial period. Although only a small minority is now organized in unions, the vast majority of Americans are working class people who depend on a paycheck for their livelihood. Many of the crucial issues we face cannot be solved through collective bargaining alone. We need political power.

The Democrats are a bosses' party that cannot be trusted. The Greens, while containing many good activists, and presenting good stands on many issues, can be our allies, but since theirs is not a class-based movement, it is not a viable alternative for taking power. In my opinion, the Labor Party is the only way to go.

(For more information about some of the history touched on in this article, we highly recommend the book Short History of the U.S. Working Class by Paul Le Blanc.)

March 11, 2001