US: What happened to the Labor Party

From July 25-28th the Labor Party is holding its third national convention in Washington DC. However, there is a sharp contrast between the lack of interest in this convention compared with the excitement of the 1996 founding convention. The founding convention in Cleveland attracted 1,400 delegates from 9 international unions and hundreds of union locals. A number of enthusiastic union activists came hoping that severing ties with the Democrats and building a Labor Party could halt labor’s 20 years of defeats.

Labor Party’s 3rd National Convention

The fight for a workers’ party continues

Since then, only a slice of union officials and activists have even heard of the Labor Party. The LP has not been able to get its Just Health Care campaign off the ground, and chapter membership has dried up. Going into the LP’s 2nd national convention in 1998, the party’s newspaper was full of interviews and debates between LP activists about how to build the party effectively. This time, there are so few activists left that The LP Press did not run a single article about convention debates – just the invitation to the conference.

LP leaders explain away the LP’s stagnation with similar explanations that "experts" use to rationalize low voter turnout – American workers are complacent and content; change won’t happen overnight. But many Americans have stopped voting because they see through the lies and broken promises of both the Democrats and Republicans. In fact, polls repeatedly show Americans want a third party. The Gallup/CNN/USA poll, for example, found on 10/27/00 that 67% of Americans want a strong third party to run candidates for national office.

What happened to the Labor Party?

The LP’s decline is not due to a lack of interest, but rather the LP leadership’s refusal to run candidates. How can people take the Labor Party seriously if it does not run candidates?

While getting candidates elected cannot change society, elections can be an important tool to reach a wider audience and build grassroots movements in the streets. The LP will only be seen as an attractive force if it boldly puts its program out there in elections and leads workers in struggles that bring about real improvements in their lives.

Justice argued since the founding of the LP that if it did not run candidates to fill the political vacuum opening up by the increasing anger at the corporations and their two parties, then other parties would. The Presidential campaign of left populist Ralph Nader did exactly that. Nader’s campaign was a major step forward for the emerging movement against corporate globalization, popularizing its basic ideas among millions of people, and uniting different single-issue movements into a common struggle against corporate rule.

When the LP failed to run a Presidential candidate or join the Nader campaign, it missed a huge opportunity to raise its profile and recruit from the crowds of 10-15,000 that Nader drew in many cities. Instead, the Green Party was the only large organized force in the Nader campaign, which lacked the working class base and program of the LP, which could have attracted many more Americans. The LP is also oriented towards the labor movement, which has the institutional resources and the powerful working class base necessary to seriously challenge the twin parties of big business.

The LP has not connected with most living struggles and movements. It has been totally unattractive to the growing anti-corporate youth movement (unlike Nader who won massive support amongst anti-corporate youth and workers in the 2000 elections).

The LP leadership’s failure to openly and publicly oppose Bush’s war on Afghanistan was a dangerous mistake. The LP should have taken a principled stand by condemning the horrific terrorist attacks of 9/11 but also explaining how Bush’s war in no way represents the interests of workers and will only exacerbate terrorism. A fighting workers’ party would win support by standing in elections and opposing the two parties’ identical agenda of budget cuts, attacks on democratic rights, racism and war.

If the Labor Party is unable to maintain an independent working class position in times of war, then it wouldn’t be able to withstand the enormous pressures to compromise with big business if it were to get candidates elected to office. Workers’ parties in other countries have ended up carrying out attacks on working people because they lacked a socialist program and an independent class position on all issues. Either a workers’ party changes the system, or else the system will change the workers’ party.

Another factor in the LP’s decline has been its lack of democracy. A key turning point was the shutting down of the New York Metropolitan chapter – the largest, most vibrant chapter in the country with over 1000 members. The LP Interim National Council turned a blind eye when the NY State LP body disbanded the local chapter because Socialist Alternative members had been elected into the leadership of the chapter and were preparing to run local LP candidates.

The LP’s Relationship with the AFL-CIO

Many left-wing union officials endorsed or affiliated to the LP on paper. Yet they refused to allow the LP to run candidates because if it did, they knew AFL-CIO President John Sweeney would have declared war on the LP and the union officials who supported it.

A Labor Party would have to seize this opportunity to open up a debate in the labor movement, from the rank-and-file on up, on why the AFL-CIO continues to waste members’ dues on the same Democratic party that gave us NAFTA, the WTO, and other attacks on labor. As LP polls have indicated, there is more support for a labor party than the Democrats or Republicans.

Instead, LP leader Tony Mazzocchi’s strategy was to avoid this inevitable clash with the AFL-CIO leaders by getting a significant number of labor leaders to endorse the LP before running candidates.

However, history shows that mass workers’ parties have only been built through titanic events and class battles, provoking crises and debates within the unions. Well-paid union officials cannot be rationally convinced of the need to break their cozy alliance with the Democrats. On the contrary, the AFL-CIO leadership will fight hard to maintain their links with the Democrats because of their overall support for capitalism.

The key force in building a mass workers’ party will be millions of politicized and active workers and youth. Labor leaders have historically only supported independent workers’ parties when they absolutely had to, once it became so popular among union members that labor leaders would be voted out if they didn’t jump on the bandwagon.

What next?

The LP’s stagnation does not prove that things will never change in America. On the contrary, the formation of the LP (and the movement against corporate globalization, the Nader campaign, the Reform Party, etc.) are signs of the deep cracks in the two-party system. Since the end of the post-war economic boom in 1973, corporations have been attacking the living standards of the working class, setting the stage for social upheaval and the eventual emergence of a mass workers’ party.

While the space has been opening up for a workers’ party, the experience of the LP demonstrates that it is not enough to just sit back and wait for people to come flocking to the party. A workers’ party needs to actively fill the vacuum and harness the growing anger at the two parties. This requires a leadership that bases itself on the needs of the movement and the capacity of workers to struggle, not the boundaries set by the top AFL-CIO officials.

The AFL-CIO should use its powerful resources to run independent candidates across the country in November. With a bold working class program, they would win the support of millions, laying the basis for the formation of a mass workers’ party. The LP and union members should argue for this within the AFL-CIO.

The LP Convention delegates should also adopt a strategy of running selected independent candidates in the November Congressional and local races. On this basis, the Labor Party could become a pole of attraction to hundreds of thousands of the most far-sighted workers and youth seeking a political alternative. Otherwise, the LP will continue stagnating, wither away or collapse.

Whatever happens at the LP convention, union, community, anti-globalization, anti-war, LP, Green, and socialist activists should form local coalitions and run independent candidates as the next step in the struggle to build a workers’ party.

This article first appeared in Justice (Issue 30, June/August), paper of Socialist Alternative (CWI section in the US)

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July 2002