David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The U.S. Finally Has a Labor Party
by David Bacon

CLEVELAND, OHIO (6/11/96) - At the height of debate around the most contentious issue before delegates at the Cleveland founding convention of the Labor Party last week, San Francisco longshoreman Dick Mead summed it up bluntly. The main question, he said, was "is you is, or is you ain't?" Is the Labor Party an electoral party, or isn't it?

From the beginning of the marathon four-day meeting, there was little doubt that a new organization would arise from this discussion, nor that it would have the support of a significant section of the country's labor movement. The question was, and is, what kind of party it will be, and what it will do to make its presence felt on the political landscape.

The issue was running candidates, and Mead's fellow delegates from the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union were at one pole of the debate. Luisa Gratz, president of Los Angeles' ILWU Local 26, introduced a proposal from her union that would have had the Labor Party run in this fall's election. "A Labor Party has to be an identifiable organization," she argued, "with candidates who commit themselves body and soul to our program." The ILWU's approach was shared by delegates from numerous local unions and area-based chapters of Labor Party Advocates (LPA), the party's predecessor organization, which built the movement leading to the convention.

But most of the seven international unions represented in Cleveland opposed the ILWU's position. Speaking for the United Electrical Workers, Carl Rosen, president of UE District 11 in Chicago, pointed out that the Labor Party "doesn't have a base anywhere right now. We have to organize first, and then run candidates. That's what works in organizing drives - organize the workers, form committees, then challenge the boss for power. If we run candidates now, we'll get slaughtered and we'll never recover."

If the new Labor Party were simply an organization of self-appointed progressive union activists, the debate wouldn't have had to take place. As Tony Mazzochi, LPA's founder and organizer for over a decade put it, "if we just went out and recruited everyone who agreed with us, we would hold this convention in a telephone booth."

The convention was not held in a telephone booth. At an additional cost of $75,000, it even had to be moved out of the Sheraton in downtown Cleveland into the city's convention center, to accommodate the flood of delegates who registered in the weeks before it opened.

The hall may have been filled with contentious people, "but at least it shows we're alive," one delegate smiled. Unlike the AFL-CIO convention in New York, no heavy-handed guards controlled access to the floor. An enormous mural memorializing John L. Lewis and Mother Jones ran down one side of the cavernous hall. On the other, a series of smaller paintings depicted oilworkers union activity, the work of Mike Alewitz, one of the country's most talented labor artists.

This convention marked an historic departure from third party formations for 40 years - the Labor Party is based on the structure of the labor movement itself, at least a part of it. Almost all of the 1300+ delegates were elected representatives of unions and area-based LPA chapters, with a membership base of over one million. The vast majority were elected representatives of the seven affiliated international unions which supplied the convention's resources, money and people-power. They included, in addition to the ILWU and the UE, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (a railroad union), and the California Nurses Association. One union alone, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, brought over 200 delegates. Two other unions joined the Labor Party in the week before the convention: the United Mine Workers and the American Federation of Government Employees (federal government workers).

This is the Labor Party's strength. But it comes with conditions.

All U.S. unions already have their own political action apparatus, as do labor councils, state labor federations and the AFL-CIO itself. They interview candidates, make endorsements, hand out campaign contributions, and mobilize union members to work phone banks and walk precincts. Democrats overwhelmingly get that support.

Unions organize, bargain, strike and represent their members, not just against the boss, but against a hostile political system. They try to kill harmful legislation and initiate proposals of their own, trying to elect politicians willing to listen to their needs. This is the system founded by Samuel Gompers, who headed the American Federation of Labor at the turn of the century. Gompers' line was "reward your friends and punish your enemies." He not only defined the goals and methods unions have used since, with the exception of a decade in the life of the CIO in the late 1930s and 40s. He also defined what labor would not do: run its own candidates and establish its own political party and structure.

No union can afford or intends to give up that structure without an alternative. So while unions' affiliate to the Labor Party, they all still maintain their own electoral apparatus. They pay dues to the Labor Party, recruit members to it, and have the largest voice in its deliberations. But they can still endorse and campaign for Democrats. It is the tension between the bankruptcy of Gomperism and the fact the alternative to it is only in its infancy, that shaped the convention's debate over electoral strategy.

What united Labor Party delegates was their fury at the Democrats for betraying working people and succumbing to corporate domination. Ironically, it was Ralph Nader, not a trade unionist, who said it most directly. Because he's running for president, and the convention was set up specifically not to hear from candidates, he was given an at-large delegate's badge, and spoke from a floor mike. "Corporations are the enemy," he thundered to a standing ovation. "This is the unifying theme here."

What makes Labor Party advocates even more bitter is the tacit assumption by Democrats that labor has no other place to go. "This is the only movement where they'll give you money, you can kick them in the ass, and they'll come back and give you more money," Mazzochi said. "That's the history of the labor movement and people who've betrayed it. They were never afraid of us."

In Mazzochi's bitter words, it is not only the administration which failed workers. NAFTA never even made it onto the agenda of the AFL-CIO's New York convention last October. Clinton was given an early endorsement this March, despite calls to negotiate with the administration over his anti-worker economic policies, including trade, welfare, Medicaid, and other watered-down Republican proposals.

David Barkley, a delegate and union representative from Service Employees Local 285 in Boston, said simply that "neither the Democrats nor the Republicans speak to working people on any issue, whether it's health care, living standards, education, housing, the environment, immigration or affirmative action." Barkley lives in Dorchester, a racially-mixed working-class community. "The Labor Party should have its backbone deeply embedded in unions, but it has to reach out to poor communities like mine," he said. "It has to present an alternative. We might not be ready to run candidates in this election, but I don't want us to become concubines for the Democrats either."

After two days of wrangling over the constitution, a compromise was put on the floor - "A New Organizing Approach to Politics." It called for recruiting members based on year-around political activity focused on the party's program, forcing elected officials and candidates to respond to it, running candidates only after "recruiting and mobilizing workers with sufficient collective resources to take on an electoral system dominated by corporations and the wealthy." In 1998, the Labor Party will hold its second convention, where it will decide on an electoral strategy.

Debate was originally cut short by a motion to call the question, leaving unions like the ILWU and SEIU with their alternatives unheard by delegates. After a storm of protest, discussion resumed, and SEIU delegates succeeded in eliminating a requirement for signing up hundreds of thousands of party members before mounting candidates. The ILWU introduced its alternative for running in the fall's election, but couldn't get the votes to pass it.

Meanwhile, the convention debated and passed its program, "A Call for Economic Justice." Sixteen general points cover elements of an attempt to reframe the national debate on economic issues. It calls for a guaranteed job for every worker at a living wage of at least $10 an hour. Other points call for universal health care, free education, and an end to corporate domination of the political process.

Earlier this year, OCAW President Bob Wages, while criticizing the AFL-CIO's move to give Clinton an early endorsement, predicted that the Labor Party convention would be a venue for rank-and-file union members to work out an alternative economic policy. He noted that while Clinton has made certain overtures to the AFL-CIO on organization issues, such as better appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, it has continued economic policies further reducing the standard of living and eliminating thousands more jobs.

The program is a radical one, based on fighting, not for greater productivity and competitiveness (the common Democratic and Republican paradigm), but on a full-employment economy, with the right to a job and income written into the constitution.

While strong on the economic interests of workers, the program is more general about social inequality. It's section on ending bigotry advocates "full rights for all," and calls for opposition to discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, language, among others. Citizenship and immigration status were included by amendment from the floor. It also supports affirmative action.

According to UE secretary-treasurer Bob Clark, however, "it still looks at everything just in terms of class struggle, while a lot of Black Americans aren't doing well as a group. It's not really relating to that. We need to pay special attention to racism. It exists in our class, and we could use a paragraph, for instance, about racism and sexism on the shop floor."

The convention did adopt two measures put forward by its Black caucus to oppose hate crimes and police brutality, and attempts to dilute minority representation by challenging majority-minority districts. It also calls for DC statehood. The Latino caucus focused on Latino representation in the Labor Party, which was overwhelmingly white. A similar caucus for women also met during the convention. In a heated confrontation on the final day, CNA tried to amend general language defending reproductive rights to include the right to abortion. They were voted down

These measures and caucuses are also the basis for forming community-based alliances. Gratz criticized the narrowness of delegates who referred to people outside of unions as simply unorganized workers. "We have to have relations with organizations in communities of the disenfranchised," she said. Clark listed environmental justice groups, black and Latino organizations, farm labor groups and health care advocates as some of the Labor Party's immediate potential allies.

Even more controversial is the idea of cooperation with some Democrats. "This is not a question of good people and evil people," Mazzochi says. "This is a question of institutional imperatives. You enter those institutions, and you have to play by those rules. And you're not going to do anything." To Clark, on the other hand, Congressmembers Maxine Waters, Major Owens, Ron Dellums and Bernie Sanders have points of view similar to those in the Labor Party program.

Making that program a living reality in the absence of running candidates, at least for two years, is the challenge the Labor Party now faces. Clark called for reinvigorating the "I'll be There" pledge popularized by Jobs with Justice, which mobilized rank-and-file union members around the country for strike solidarity and campaigns for labor law reform and single-payer health care. "I can't just organize folks around a vision," he said.

As delegates were debating this conundrum, they received unexpected help from Democratic Mayor Mike White, who with an impeccable sense of timing, announced in the Plain Dealer that collective bargaining for public workers was driving Cleveland bankrupt, and that he intended to put a stop to it. Delegates stormed out of the convention hall, and marched over to City Hall where they blocked traffic. Then they tried to find the mayor at the Marriott Hotel a few blocks away, where they occupied the lobby for half an hour. It felt like a JwJ action, and made building the Labor Party's base through direct action seem a little more concrete. Coming back to the hall the following day, delegates passed a motion calling for a national march on Detroit in solidarity with the newspaper strike, a move which the AFL-CIO has avoided.

The city hall demonstration was a missed opportunity for AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, in Cleveland to address the City Club. Perhaps coming to the hall, where he might have faced direct debate over support for Clinton, would have been difficult. But coming to the demonstration would have been easy, as would have been some words about room in the AFL-CIO for differences of opinion over electoral activity. After all, everyone knows that all the unions there are going to support the AFL-CIO's campaign for Clinton this year anyway, despite anger and misgivings. Instead, Sweeney told the Plain Dealer, it would have been better to save the organization of a Labor Party to a non-election year. "Shame on us," he said, "if we start splitting off and distracting our activists." In a post-convention interview, however, AFL-CIO executive vice-president Linda Chavez-Thompson was more conciliatory.

The Labor Party may also campaign around non-candidate measures, such as the two patient protection initiatives in California, where the anti-affirmative action California Civil Rights Initiative is also on the ballot. While no structure is yet in place for pulling the Labor Party into those campaigns, there seemed to be no opposition, even from those who staunchly opposed supporting candidates. "I would expect a labor party to endorse action on these initiatives," Wages said. "Opposing the anti-affirmative action initiative is important if we want to build alliances."

At the end of the convention, he speculated that other unions would also consider joining the Labor Party, including the other railroad unions, the service employees, the carpenters, teamsters, and the electronics workers. "If we remain non-electoral for the near future, and have discussions that leave room for fusion candidates, running both on our line and that of the Democrats, I think other unions will be interested," he concluded. "One thing's for sure, and that is that the old system isn't working for them anymore. People are angry, and they're tired of the same old lies."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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