Labor Party

Tom Condit tomcondit at igc.apc.org
Tue May 28 05:49:12 MDT 1996


These are some notes about the question of a labor party in the
United States of (North) America. They're not in any particular
order, so don't try to figure out how one logically leads to the
next, because it might not do so. I wrote them because although
the discussion on this list has died down, a lot of specific
questions were asked which no one answered; plus I've got some
opinions.

I should say just as a preface that I'll be going to Cleveland
for the L.P.A. conference on June 6-8. My wife is a delegate from
her local union and I'll be covering it as a journalist. As of
this past Thursday, over 1,100 people had pre-paid their $75
registration fee for the conference and over 2,000 have indicated
that they're coming. The convenors had to move
it from the Sheraton Hotel conference hall (capacity 1200) to the
Cleveland Conference Center (capacity 3000). Every hotel room in
Cleveland is booked for the convention weekend. So whatever
happens, it will be not be just an affair of a few dozen leftists
and/or union bureaucrats arguing with each other.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CALL FOR A LABOR PARTY

The call for a labor party in the U.S. has an importance entirely
separate from the question of whether a labor party can actually
be created or what kind of labor party it would be if it were
created.

U.S. politics (particularly in the West) is dominated by
individualist and anti-organizational biases. "Vote for the man,
not the party," is the inveterate slogan of the North American
"independent". This contains an implicit acknowledgement that the
two parties are not significantly different, but assumes that the
solution to this lies in sorting out competent and honest
individuals for election, and that this is a "marketplace"
process. Proposals for reforming the electoral process almost
invariably include measures to make political organization more
difficult (outlawing political action committees, forbidding
unions to engage in politics, etc.). The free market of politics
will be made more efficient by eliminating cartels. The
individual voter will analyze political issues in the privacy of
his or her own home and decide them in the privacy of the voting
booth. Above all, politics must be kept in the realm of (a few)
ideas and personalities and away from the realm of group action
for collective improvement.

The call for a labor party breaks with this tradition. It says
that
(1) we need to form a party based on our class interests rather
than our own individual ideas or idiosyncrasies, and
(2) we need to form such a party as a group, based on the
collective institutions of our class, rather than as atomized
individuals rallying around good ideas or good leaders.

Thus as a *propaganda* slogan (rather than an agitational one),
the call for a labor party is loaded with material for
stimulating political thought among our fellow workers.

I would note in this respect that those comrades who would oppose
a labor party unless it had a perfect program are veering
dangerously close to endorsing the bourgeois notion that politics
is a marketplace of ideas rather than an arena of class struggle.

DIVISIONS IN THE WORKING CLASS

I think the prospects for the actual formation of a labor party
(or any other working class party of significant size) in the
U.S. right now are not good, although the huge response to the
call for the Cleveland convention shows that many working class
people are ready for class politics. This is, quite frankly,
because differences in both material interests and political
perception within the working class are too widely divergent to
be overcome except by a movement with a program more radical (in
the sense of going to the roots of the problems) than anything
which will be adopted in the short term by any mass or small mass
organization. How such a movement can be brought into existence
is the proverbial "chicken and egg" question which can only be
resolved in practice.

One example: some of the strongest support for L.P.A. in my area
has come from building trades locals (particularly the carpenters
and painters). Yet most of the leadership and much of the
rank and file of these unions is committed to an alliance with
contractors and real estate developers in opposition to
environmental reviews and for unlimited construction. Other
strong support has come from service workers such as health care
workers, most of whom have a very strong environmental
consciousness. It's easy to say in abstract that these
contradictions are soluble as part of a working class program to
both rebuild our human habitat and protect the environment.
Indeed, they are. But in the short term, the struggle will be
fractious rather than unifying. (It should be obvious when I say
this that I believe it's a necessary struggle.)

Can the divisions between men and women, black and white, native
and immigrant, skilled and unskilled, be overcome? Can the false
contradiction of "jobs versus the environment" be resolved? Yes,
they can. But it won't happen this year or next year to
the extent necessary to create a real party of labor in the U.S.

Unless the selection of delegates back east has been a lot
different from that in California, the L.P.A. convention will be
much whiter and much more male than the composition of the
working class as a whole. The extent to which groups such as
Black Workers for Justice, the Black Rank and File Exchange,
local chapters of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and
others can influence the Cleveland proceedings will be key to the
future of this movement.

THE L.P.A. LEADERSHIP AND ENDORSING UNIONS

The leadership of L.P.A. at the national level is a thin layer of
officials in smaller international unions, particularly the Oil,
Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW). The moving force within
OCAW'S efforts is Tony Mazzocchi, who has been working fulltime
on L.P.A. for some time, supported by the union.

Mazzocchi is a former chemical worker from either New Jersey or
Pennsylvania (I forget which). He was president of his local of
the Chemical Workers Union when it merged with the Oil Workers to
form the OCAW. As international vice-president of the OCAW he was
assigned to Washington (the union's headquarters are in Denver)
as the union's lobbyist with Congress. In that capacity, he wrote
most of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and shepherded it
through Congress.

Unlike many union lobbyists who acquire the "beltway culture,"
Mazzocchi became deeply cynical about both major parties as a
result of his experience in working with them. I was in a small
meeting with him over 20 years ago where he told a group of us
that OHSA would never have passed if there were a Democratic
president--the Democrats in Congress expected Nixon to veto it,
but he surprised them by signing it instead.

The organizational culture of the OCAW has been shaped by its
circumstances as a small union confronting some of the most
powerful corporations in the world, with many of its work sites
in small towns and rural areas. I don't think there's a single
oil refinery in the U.S. with a union shop agreement--certainly
it's not the norm. Despite enormous company resistance, many
refineries are 98 to 99% union, making the oil workers' component
of the OCAW much more like
unions in other countries which must win the loyalty of the
membership rather just collect dues from people compelled to
join. In addition, they have had to work with other unions
(including independent enterprise, or "company", unions) in
formulating industry-wide bargaining demands.

Given the nature of the industries they organize in, it's not
surprising that OCAW has been the union most interested in
questions of environmental health (as opposed to just safety on
the job) and that its lobbyist drafted the OHSA. Similarly, OCAW
has been the most consistent proponent within the labor movement
of a national health system.

My impression is that when Mazzocchi first got the labor party
bug in his ear the rest of the OCAW leadership gave him a salary
and a staff member just to get him out of their hair. I think
there's little doubt now that they are fully committed to the
project.

For a considerable period of time, the OCAW was the only
international union to actively support LPA. The second union to
endorse was the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers
Union (UE). UE was one of the old "red" unions expelled from the
CIO in the purges of the 1940s. It lost most of its membership to
a right-wing splinter union (the International Union of
Electrical Workers, or IUE) organized by the Association of
Catholic Trade Unionists with the active support of the CIO
leadership, the Democratic Party, the government and the
employers. Its base is in the factory towns of the northeast and
mid-Atlantic states, although it has scattered locals throughout
the country.

UE has passed resolutions favoring formation of a labor party at
its conventions since the 1930s, but hasn't really done much
about it. (Neither of course has anyone else who passes such
resolutions.) In 1995, the UE held its international convention
in Burlington, Vermont, to celebrate the fact that Burlington had
an independent left majority on its city council and that Vermont
had sent an independent socialist to Congress. The UE has its
headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is not a member of
the AFL-CIO.

The third union to endorse was the Brotherhood of Maintenance of
Way Employees. I don't know much about the BMWE except that it
has 600 small lodges and that its endorsement of a labor
party grows directly out of the unanimous or near-unanimous (I
think Bernie Sanders voted against) act of Congress to break
their last strike. As well, they are in an industry which has
been continuously restructuring and in particular trying to
reduce its maintenance costs. Perhaps Jon Flanders could tell us
more. The BMWE delegation in Cleveland will be entirely made up
of officials, but many of these will be unpaid local officers.

The most recent endorsement by an international came from the
International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union,
representing ports in the western United States and Canada. This
is another one of the unions which was expelled from the CIO for
being "reds", but unlike the UE has rejoined the AFL-CIO. The
ILWU has long been a sort of refuge for radicals blacklisted out
of other trades on the West Coast, but has also been thoroughly
enmeshed with port politics, which means the Democratic Party.
The automation of the industry has taken a terrible toll on
membership.

In 1994, the coastwide longshore caucus passed a resolution in
support of "an independent workers' party" which I'm posting
separately. The Inland Boatmen's Union, a subsection of the ILWU
representing tug and barge workers, endorsed this resolution and
also called upon L.P.A. to run candidates now and to totally
break with the Democrats. These actions, passed by rank and file
vote, led up to the International's endorsement of the Cleveland
convention.

All of these unions have things in common: They are small
unions facing huge corporate employers, they have relatively low
salaries for officials and staff compared to unions like the
Service Employees or the Teamsters, they have a high degree of
rank and file involvement at the local level, and they *don't*
have their headquarters in Washington, D.C. It should be pointed
out that the L.P.A. endorsements were made at conventions and not
by executive boards acting on their own.

The fifth major endorser, sometimes referred to as if it were an
international union, is the California Nurses Association. The
CNA has been on a leftward trajectory for the past three decades
as it transformed itself from a "professional association" into a
union. Most recently, a final intense internal struggle between
the "professionals" and the "unionists" led to a sharp shift in
CNA leadership and the withdrawal (or expulsion, I'm not sure
which) of the CNA from the more traditional American Nurses
Association. The CNA, like OCAW, has been a strong supporter of a
national health system. The current restructuring of the health
care industry poses enormous threats to CNA members both as
individuals and as a group, and it is clearly apparent that
neither capitalist party is speaking to their needs or interests.

I also see in the small print of L.P.A.'s list of endorsers
something called the "Textile Processors, Service Trades, Health
Care, Professional and Technical Employees International Union,
Chicago, Illinois". Does anyone know what this is? It clearly
doesn't rate a major trumpet from the L.P.A. organizers. I can't
even tell if it's an endorsement by the whole union or just one
local. (Of course, it's entirely possible that the whole union
consists of just one local.)

FORWARD MOTION AND FOOT-DRAGGING

This is getting to be quite long. I want to post another message
on contradictions and problems within LPA as I see them. But
briefly:

The organizational style of Mazzocchi and company has been quite
typical of union officials. On the one hand, they have initiated
a process which they hope will lead to independent labor
political organization. On the other hand, they are afraid of
getting "too far out on a limb," and the closer they get to
actually creating something the more fearful they're becoming.

This fearfulness is intensifying as other labor officials start
to take them seriously and "counsel" them on how to move slowly.
The structure proposed for LPA by the (self-appointed) steering
committee is one guaranteed to produce inaction in the short
term, by minimizing any type of input that isn't filtered through
the union structures. I promise to tell you more.

At the same time, it should be clear that this isn't some clever
maneuver designed to stem off a massive revolutionary upsurge
>from below. If Neil knows where this upsurge is taking place, he
should let us know in detail, but I sure don't see it. What *is*
going on, however, is a process of disillusionment and anger with
the present system which pervades a large part of the U.S.
working class *including* both union officials and non-union
workers. LPA is an expression of this process, but one filtered
through the union structures, which even in the most democratic
unions tend to be slow-moving and rule-bound. What it will come
to, no one knows. Quite likely it won't come to anything; but
it's still vital to participate in the process.

That's it for now. If people want to get on the LPA newsgroup
mailing list, they can

write to majordomo at igc.apc.org

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And you'll be on the list. If you're on an IGC (or I suspect any
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Tom Condit


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