“We understand that unless we organize a party grounded in the trade union movement around issues that matter to most working people, we won’t be able to seriously influence the resolution of issues that our members, other working people and millions of others care about most.” — Bob Wages, Secretary-Treasurer of Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, which supports the building of a labor party and supports Labor Party Advocates.
Today, the working class is numerically more powerful than ever. The great mass of small farmers and shopkeepers have dwindled to a tiny proportion of society, gobbled up by big agribusiness companies and giant retail outlets like Wal-Mart. Into the workforce have come millions of working women who have left the isolation of their homes and emerges as a strong force to advance the interests of the working class. Thus, today, over 110 million people gain their primary means of subsistence by receiving a paycheck for a living. If you take their families, the working class is the overwhelming majority of the population.
The US working class produces the food the raw materials, the steel, the automobiles and all the major products in the US. It also drives the buses, unloads the ships, tends the sick, teaches the young and does the day-to-day running of the government. Without our labor, nothing would move. Also, many of other sections of society, small farmers and the self-employed live similar lives and have similar concerns to those of the working class. This is the strength of the working class.
Anger at conditions on the job has already led to increasing success in union organizing. In 1993 and 1994, for the first time in over a decade, there was a net increase of over 400,000 in union members. The potential support for unions is shown in a recent poll which showed that 75% of the population believe labor unions improve wages and conditions. At a certain point the present mood will break through with important victories, preparing a new movement of tens of millions of workers into the unions.
Unlike in the past, this time the movement for a labor party will be carried through to completion in the period coming up. This is due to the deep crisis of American and world capitalism. Workers will not be able to solve their struggles on the job and through unions alone. It is only by moving onto the political arena of struggle and ultimately a workers’ government that any major problems can be solved.
No Escape From the Crisis
For the first time in US history, there is no escape for workers by moving West. In the past, this was an escape valve for growing social and political pressure. Now, California can no longer offer the hope of wealth and prosperity that it did in the past. In fact, California is going through its deepest crisis. Due to mass layoffs, and the economic crisis, in 1992m for the first time in history, more people left California than entered it.
Also, in the past, American capitalism had been able to overcome its political crises through economic growth. This was due to the relative health and strength of US capitalism. The period when US capitalism was a youthful and growing economic system is long gone. The period from 1930 to 1970 when the US was at the peak of its power is also gone. Today the US is no longer the absolute dominant world power, and has to compete fiercely even to defend its home markets from its rivals’ products. It is dragged down by a huge budget deficit, a record trade deficit and an exploding national debt.
In his book, Boiling Point, Kevin Philips describes the particular features of the decline of the United States, and compares it with the decline of precious world powers like the Spanish and British Empires of previous centuries. He concludes: “Polarization and anger among ordinary citizens of precious great economic powers who saw themselves losing ground led to food and tax riots and finally revolution in eighteenth century Holland, and then, in early-twentieth-century Britain, to rapid gains for the Labor Party, with its blueprints for class warfare, socialism and the expansion of the welfare state.”
Since the collapse of the postwar economic upswing in 1975, the world economy has entered a period of crisis and stagnation, as the level of economic growth has declined around the world.
The Democratic administration of Carter began to implement this program during the late 1970s. It deregulated trucking and allowed the increase in inflation to erode the value of wages. It also began to cut social programs and increase spending on the military. During the years Carter was in office, prices rose 41% and profits rose 54.6%, while wages only rose 31%. During his term in office an offensive began on union activists, with 15,000 workers being illegally fired for union activity in 1980. The concessionary movement in labor contracts also began at this time. Not one of labor’s priority legislation was passed under Jimmy Carter.
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The growth level of 2.6% in the 1980s was only possible because the whole of US society went into debt. This cannot be sustained in the 1990s. In fact, it is a huge drag on the economy. In fact, the forecast for growth in the 1990s by Merrill Lynch is 2% – the lowest since the depression decade of the 1930s, and approximately half that of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
Time magazine stated in November 1986: “It is the middle class whose values and ambitions set the tone for the country. Without it the US could become a house divided in which middle Americans would no longer serve as a powerful voice for political compromise.” These are the conditions that will force US workers to struggle to transform the unions and build a mass labor party in the 1990s/
The implications of this were drawn by Dan Lacer, editor of Workplace Trends, clearly lays out the present situation. “This is not just a recession. This is the end of a 40-year boom. Everything we consider to be a normal workplace relationship is not – it is a postwar boom relationship.”
Increased Support for a Labor Party
Once again, US society is moving into crisis. A deep class polarization is developing as workers see their living standards in decline, while the rich line their pockets. Now once again this process is being repeated. Under the impact of the growing crisis, and failure of the Democrats, support for a union-based labor party is growing at all levels of the labor movement.
The process is similar to how developments occurred in the past. Whenever the economy has moved into crisis, class polarization develops and workers move into struggle on the issues of jobs, conditions and wages. Out of their experiences of these struggles, workers have also begun to build an independent political alternative – a labor party.
Today, even before a mass movement of workers and youth has developed, there is growing consciousness about the need for a labor party. At the end of the 1980s, Tony Mazzochi, then Secretary Treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union moved to form Labor Party Advocates (LPA). LPA is not a labor party; it is an organization committed to building a labor party. In a number of polls in union locals run by the LPS, in almost every case there has been more support for a labor party than the Democrats or Republicans.
Beginning in the fall of 1993, the San Francisco and Alameda Labor Councils voted overwhelmingly to support Labor Party Advocates, and to build a California Labor Party. The idea of a labor party gained even more support after the NAFTA “debate”. The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW), the United Electrical Union (UE) and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWE) now support LPA, with the OCAW having transferred its Political Action Committee money to LPA.
Other labor leaders have begun to question the role of the Democrats. Ron Carey, leader of the Teamsters, addressing Bill Clinton immediately after the passing of NAFTA, said: “You will have to pay for this… We will develop political alternatives for 1994 and 1996 so that working people do not have to choose between the lesser of two evils.” This is part of a process of increased debate and division at the top of the AFL-CIO, where leaders of important unions like SEIU, Teamsters, CWA, mineworkers (UMWA) and other unions are beginning to question the present failed policies of the AFL-CIO leadership, and are demanding more aggressive policies in relation to strike support and organizing the unorganized. This is a reflection of increased anger among the rank and file, and the demand that the unions organize a serious fight-back.
Workers Need a Labor Party
In the present situation, the leadership of the AFL-CIO have the responsibility to call a conference of delegates from unions, union locals, community organizations, youth, student and civil rights organizations across the country to set up such a party. This would trigger an overwhelming response from workers inside and outside the unions. Such a conference could draw up a comprehensive program which would attract support from workers and youth across the country.
The creation of a labor party in the US would be an event of world significance, and would transform politics in the United States. It would give workers the feeling of being part of a class – the working class. Workers could then see that they have interests separate from big business on every major issue that faces America. The lack of a strong feeling of class has enormously weakened US workers and allowed big business to divide it into ‘interest groups’. A labor party would be a huge step forward towards the development of a clear and strong class-consciousness among workers in the US.
The building of their own political party, despite the failure of their leadership, has been the key event in raising the class-consciousness and increasing the power and cohesion of the working class in every other country. The same would be the case here. The labor party would inject into day-to-day life a political outlook that clearly and sharply defends the needs of workers, and exposes the interests of big business.
The creation of a labor party would be a major blow to racism and other reactionary ideas, and would build unity among workers. Huge support would develop among the blacks, latinos and other oppressed minorities. Big business has systematically used racism to drive down the living standards of black, latino and other oppressed minorities and to divide the working class. The creation of a labor party would unite workers from all backgrounds, all races, all sexes, all ages and all religions.
At present the majority of workers are outside the unions. By building a labor party that this section of workers can participate in the struggle of the workers against big business, and thus be pulled over more decisively onto the side of the organized working class.
Through the creation of a strong labor press and labor cable TV channels, the propaganda of big business could be exposed as serving the interests of a tiny minority. By explaining how big business has caused the problems of all workers, the labor party would be able to raise money and build support for the struggles of all sections of workers. Workers forced out on struggle would no longer be isolated from the rest of the rest of the working class in the same way as in the past.
Just as the formation of a labor party would strengthen the working class in its struggle with big business, it will create a massive shift in the balance of class forces in the US in favor of the working class. It would force big business to grant more reforms, because of its fear that a labor party would grow. The formation of a labor party would win more concrete gains for workers than all the attempts of the past to get the Democrats to pass legislation to benefit workers. This has been the experience of workers in other countries, for example in Canada, where important gains have been won without their parties coming to power. This has won a shorter workweek, universal healthcare system, increased protection on the job, improved unemployment benefits, etc.
Labor Party Advocates
As explained, what is necessary to create a labor party is for the leadership of the AFL-CIO international unions to break from supporting the Democrats and put all their resources behind building a labor party. However, Lane Kirkland and the majority of the other leaders of the AFL-CIO continue to support the Democrats. This has meant that the movement for a labor party has had to come from different forces of the labor movement.
This growing mood for a labor party has crystallized around the Labor Party Advocates, LPA. For the first time in many decades an organization has emerged rooted in the working class that supports a labor party. Labor Party Advocates has set the fall of 1995 or spring of 1996 as a date to hold a conference to form a labor party. All workers should get involved to ensure that this comes to fruition and is a great success.
LPA is not yet a labor party. It is an “organizing committee” for a labor party. The process of building a labor party will only be completed when decisive sections of the labor movement break from supporting the Democrats and put their resources behind labor candidates and a labor party.
It is essential that LPA continually pressures the union leadership to take the decisive step and break from the Democrats and build a labor party on a national level. At the same time LPA must use its resources and mobilize its members to bring the idea of a labor party to every union local and every meeting of labor. It must mobilize the union membership to pressure the union leadership to build a labor party.
The idea of a labor party must be taken into the workplaces, unions, communities and schools of America. All money should be cut off from the Democrats. When a labor party is created, those organizations should be asked to support the labor party. Labor party campaigns must be taken into the union locals to get these bodies to support LPA and a labor party.
Bob Wages, leader of the OCAW explains the support that exists for a labor party among the rank and file: “I have not been one place in this country that the rank and file aren’t ready to get with it. We have to get the rank and file regardless of what the leadership does.”
It is essential that labor also runs labor candidates in this present period of anger at the established political parties. The likes of Ross Perot, David Duke and Oliver North must not be allowed to fill the political vacuum. The disastrous policies of the Democrats and Republicans must be challenged in every possible arena. The 19 million who voted for Ross Perot demonstrates the weakness of the two parties. Labor candidates can score spectacular successes, and thereby get the attention of workers across the country. The success of Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist congressman from Vermont, who in subsequent elections has increased his majority, demonstrates clearly what can be achieved.
At this stage, LPA has decided not to run candidates and not to develop a program. If this policy continues, a great opportunity will be missed, and it will make it much more difficult to build support for labor party among workers. It is undoubtedly the case that a number of union activists and workers will be ready to support and campaign for labor candidates, if a lead is given from the top.
In the run up to the 1996 elections, LPA should continually call on the AFL-CIO to run labor candidates and to support labor candidates that do run. At the same time, where support exists for running a candidate, LPA should call on its members to take action to move their union locals and labor councils to set up labor electoral committees. Where these are substantial enough, then they should run labor candidates in the November elections.
Need for a Program
For LPA to grow in the short term, it is essential that it have a program which can attract workers to join it. Of course, the full program of LPA would not be adopted until their convention. However, the OCAW has developed a minimum program of demands which LPA has publicized. Adopting such a program would not cut across the democratic process of adopting a program at the convention. The OCAW program, published in LPA’s journal of April 1993 included a massive jobs program, a bill of rights for workers, a Canadian-style single payer national health program, anti-scab legislation, legislation on fair trade and to boost economic growth, the right of workers to refuse to work in an unsafe workplace and a childcare program for families who need it.
At its convention LPA should hammer out a clear program of demands that will address the needs of workers and youth from all backgrounds. It must also lay down a strategy of running candidates in elections. This would give the labor party great publicity and allow it to attract thousands of new members.
Any successful campaign to build a labor party has to reach out and win the confidence of the youth. The youth have no future in the 1990s in this system. They are also, in general, outside the labor movement. Yet, facing a future of low pay, part-time jobs, in a society being wracked by crisis, they will be in the forefront of all struggles for a better society. Every successful movement, from the union struggles of the 1930s to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1950s and 1960s was led by youth. Youth will throw their energy and fighting spirit into the labor party movement if it boldly fights for the issues that affect them, and creates a campaigning youth section.
The conditions and concerns of all racially oppressed minorities must be addressed. A labor party must ruthlessly expose the racist policies of big business and the conditions that have been created in the inner cities. This will attract to it some of its most dedicated activists and a huge amount to support.
Many individuals will point to the fact that third parties in the US have not been successful in the past. However, this is not because they were third parties, but because they were not backed by the power and strength of the organized working class. In the past, third party candidates have gained quite considerable support. However, they have failed to gather the resources to present themselves to win sufficient support to be a credible alternative to the two parties. Also, because they have tended to have a middle class character, they have failed to consistently represent the interests of the working class, and have tended to come into the orbit of the two major parties. A labor party would not be a ‘third party’. In a short term its growing strength would force big business to put its resources either behind one party, or to fuse the two parties, in order to compete with an emerging mass labor party.
Transformation of Unions
The role of the unions is key to developing a mass political party that can challenge big business. There are 55,000 union locals, representing over 16 million workers with billions of dollars in their bank accounts. During the 1992 elections the unions donated $42.5 to congressional candidates. This is only a fraction of finances and personal energy that would be put forward to elect a labor party to power. Also, the unions unite workers from every racial and ethnic background, both men and women. There is a strong tradition of democratic activity, voting and decision-making. This is the force that will be crucial to launch a successful political party of the working class which can challenge the resources available to big business.
The question of building a labor party is inseparably linked to transforming the unions. The members who are fighting to regain democratic control of their unions will also tend to be fighting for a labor party. It will become clear that the same trade union leaders who sit and make deals with the employers behind the back of the members, are also meeting with the politicians to make deals there. Thus only by building a labor party will these backroom deals be ended as political decisions would now be overseen by labor party members.
As in the past, the transformation of the unions will occur with explosive speed. At a certain stage, not only will new members surge into the unions, but similar explosive movements as have occurred in the past will transform and retransform the labor movement, including the growth of the emerging labor party.
The potential support for a labor party is huge. Almost one half of the population does not vote. This is mainly because they are totally alienated from politics as they see it. During both the last two elections most people said they voted against candidates rather than for them. In 1992, 63% said they wanted another party. In the run up to the 1992 election, Ross Perot, an unknown billionaire had more support than both major parties in the opinion poles. In that same year, 83% said they believe the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, and the economic system is unfair. Also 55% said they believe millionaires got rich by exploiting others.
This is the basis for mass support for a labor party with a bold and fighting program. Although at first it will be a minority of workers who will support a labor party, activists will find growing support among broad layers of workers and youth. At a certain stage the pressure from below for a labor party will result in a section of the leadership of the AFL-CIO unions puts their resources behind the movement.
For a temporary period, a split may occur at the top of the AFL-CIO, with the top AFL-CIO leadership still clinging onto the Democrats. It is most likely that the AFL-CIO leadership will give at least one more push for the Democrats. The labor party movement may begin in one city, state or region, and then spread to other states. Also, there may be an initial spurt in one area which may die down before reemerging with far greater strength later. Also, initially it may be spearheaded by only one, two or three major unions. However, eventually an unstoppable movement will be built from below. It is then that the AFL-CIO leadership will be forced to break from the Democrats, and put the resources of the unions behind putting the labor party into power.
This is the experience in other countries where labor parties were formed. The Canadian labor party, the New Democratic Party, NDP, emerged in 1961 when the Canadian Labor Congress, (Canadian equivalent of the AFL-CIO) put its resources behind the movement for a labor party that had begun during the 1930s by the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.
In Britain, before the Labor Party was created by the unions at the turn of the century, its forerunners the Social-Democratic Federation and the Independent Labor Party (ILP) had waged systematic campaigns for the unions to build a labor party. Significantly, it was the election of the first labor candidates in the 1890s which gave a huge boost to the development of the British Labor Party. These candidates broke the tradition of the unions supporting one of the two big business parties, the Liberals.
A newly formed Labor Party, once it had the resources of the union leadership behind it, will very quickly develop a membership of millions, and a thriving energetic youth section. Faced with a hostile big business press, it will develop its own newspapers, magazines, cable channels etc. to put its message across. It will not rely on the political machines of the big business parties. Instead it will be the energy, enthusiasm and financial sacrifice of ordinary workers that will spread the word.
Door to door canvassing, street meetings, public rallies and mass demonstrations would spread the message of the labor party. An energetic and radical youth section would harness the enthusiasm and creativity of the youth. The movement would build on the heroic mass-campaigns of the Socialist Party in the 1910s and 1920s, when Eugene Debs traveled the country on a special train to win votes.
Out of these enthusiastic campaigns, in a short period, the Labor Party will challenge for power. In these campaigns, society will become more polarized into classes. Big business will unleash its gutter press and all its politicians to defeat the monster it sees emerging. However, in its campaigns it will only deepen the class-divide and class understanding of US society. As occurred in San Francisco in the 1904 election, big business may, in desperation, attempt to merge its tow parties together to defeat the Labor Party.
Eventually, workers will see through the various disguises that big business uses to hide its real interests. Its display of smoke and mirrors, its appeals to “democracy” and the “American way”, its vicious red-baiting, its use of racism to divide and rule – all these will be unable to disguise the truth. Society is divided into two major classes: a small minority who own the factories, companies and who control the wealth, and the majority of the population whose lives have been made a misery by the actions of this tiny elite. The election of a labor party will start a new chapter in US history.