by Pete Brown, Detroit
(from Communist Voice #9, August 1, 1996)
. In early June the founding convention of the new "Labor Party" was held in Cleveland. This is a
party founded of, by and for a section of upper-level trade union bureaucrats, together with an
assortment of social-democratic-minded allies of theirs. It is not a mass workers' party or an
avowedly revolutionary or socialist party. This party's founders were happy for many years
functioning as the "labor" tail of the Democratic Party, but with the latter's drift to the right,
giving up any pretensions to traditional Rooseveltian liberal-labor politics, they felt the need to
try and revive such politics.
Reaction from the left
. It's interesting to see the reaction to this event from various leftist groups, as it provides a sort of mirror in which one can view the various trends. Let's look at a few of these.
. First of all, under the heading "most enthused" we should include People's Tribune, newspaper of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. Now, in the old days LRNA called itself the Communist Labor Party, but in the conditions of the 90s it revamped its image, threw communism out the window and emerged as generalized, mild-mannered "revolutionaries. " Their special advocacy group is the poor, people on welfare, etc. , and they often have informative articles about the struggles of these strata. But their political orientation has gone completely awry. LRNA doesn't even pretend to have any doubts or criticisms of the new party. They enthusiastically proclaim, on their front page, "Labor Party to fight for employed and unemployed. " They're excited that the Labor Party decided to allow the National Welfare Rights Union and the National Union of the Homeless to affiliate to the party. And granted, that is quite a concession from union bureaucrats, to even admit that poor and homeless people exist. But what evidence do they have that the Labor Party "will fight for" the unemployed?
. In their centerfold spread on the party's founding convention, LRNA waxes enthusiastic about the great numbers of people there -- 1,367 delegates "representing more than one million people" according to LRNA. But this is the typical trade-union bureaucrat style of counting. The president of a trade union with a hundred thousand members will say he "represents 100,000 people", neglecting to mention if those 100,000 people expressly sent him on this mission, or if he even informed them about it.
. LRNA's article contains some information about the Labor Party's 19-page program. They say it calls for a constitutional right to a job (at $10 an hour); supports affirmative action and immigrant rights; denounces racist church burnings and police brutality; and calls for a guaranteed annual income. All good things, of course; but one wonders if LRNA isn't just selecting out the most popular items from this 19-page program. (I hope to examine this program in a future article: since the Labor Party Advocates refused to allow any discussion of program before the party's founding, and never publicized any drafts of the program, I haven't yet had an opportunity to peruse it. )
. This is LRNA's method in dealing with the founding convention -- to just slough over
differences and act as if everyone's enthused and everyone's equal. Workers on strike, people on
welfare, etc. are thrown into the same boat as top labor bureaucrats like Tony Mazzocchi and
social-democratic political figures like Jim Hightower and Ralph Nader. And of course all these
figures are going to go all out for the homeless, the unemployed, those on welfare and those
suffering under racial and ethnic discrimination. Is this for real? LRNA thinks so, or at least
wants to hope so.
"Socialist Action": diehard defenders of the bureaucrats
. Also under the heading "very enthused", but with some possible reservations, we could list Socialist Action, a mild-mannered Trotskyist newspaper (and organization). Now, the founding of the Labor Party is actually precisely what SA has been advocating for years. In their basic policy statement, given on page 2 of their newspaper, they say, "We advocate a labor party based on the unions. " No doubt many SA supporters were also active in Labor Party Advocates, and they're pretty excited about the party's founding. So the front page of their June 1996 newspaper proclaims, in large red headlines, "The Need for a Labor Party with a Winning Union Strategy. "
. This issue of their paper appeared shortly before the party's founding, and after an LPA conference in Northern California. SA was looking forward to the founding convention, but got a scare at the California conference when former California governor Jerry Brown showed up as the featured speaker. They recognize that a Labor Party might function as simply a stalking horse for bourgeois politicians, to draw workers back into the fold of mainstream bourgeois politics. In an interesting sidebar, "A page from labor history", they note that rotten AFL bureaucrats in the late 1930s set up a political grouping, "Labor's Non-Partisan League", for just such a purpose. And they say a debate broke out at the California LPA conference over the question of basing the Labor Party on the trade unions, or "for a party that would submerge unions in a combination of groups like the Greens and other middle-class political formations -- as well as demagogic political representatives of the bosses. " By "demagogues" SA means people like Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown.
. So here's the basic dynamic of the Labor Party, according to SA: whether it should be "based on the trade unions" or whether the unions should be "submerged". On this question, let no one doubt, SA is all for having a Labor Party "based on the unions. " In advocating this they wax enthusiastic over "Brother Mazzocchi", the trade union official who has been pushing strongly for this position in the Labor Party.
. SA pretends that this is a major question of principle, like a question of class orientation. Presumably the Greens and the "demagogues" represent other class forces, while trade union leaders represent the working class. But why? Because they are officials of trade unions, elected by workers? But isn't the mass base of the Democratic Party -- the vast majority of those who register and vote Democratic -- also workers? So by the same logic does this make Bill Clinton a representative of the working class?
. The question is, how can SA justify their advocating "a labor party based on the unions" as the way forward for the working class, when they know that "based on the unions" means "dominated by the trade union officialdom", the same officialdom that has a stranglehold on the working class movement today? To SA's credit, they have some recognition of this little problem. For example, in a separate article they note how bureaucrats of railway unions overturned a membership vote and helped impose a backward contract settlement on rail workers. And in an article on the Detroit newspaper strike they express strong doubts about whether John Sweeney is up to organizing a winning strategy. They even have their doubts about Mazzocchi, noting that he conciliates those labor bureaucrats who are still staunchly pro-Democratic Party, and urge him to take a more "independent" stand.
. But these are only doubts "among brothers. " Basically, SA is all in agreement with Mazzocchi.
And this means giving a dead-end orientation to the workers. The working class stands in need of
reorganization today, to establish itself as a class force independent of the bourgeoisie. But this
can't be conceived of as consolidating a social-democratic political vehicle for the labor
bureaucrats. Nor can it be limited to organizations "based on" the present trade unions, who
represent a fairly small percentage of the working class. And even for those workers presently in
trade unions -- although they already have some rudimentary class organization, the stifling
bureaucracy sitting on top of this organization means that these workers, too, will have to go
through a period of reorganization before they can establish their independence from bourgeois
"Spark" wants a no-vote
. Another Trotskyite paper publicizing the Labor Party's founding is The Spark. Spark isn't as enthused about it as SA, but they're generally supportive of the project. The main point in their article is to criticize the founding convention's decision to not run candidates in the 1996 elections. The convention leaders argued that it served no purpose to run candidates who could not possibly win. Spark criticizes this, arguing that even if you don't win, you can at least publicize your politics and help to wean workers away from the established parties. At least, Spark says, the founding convention could have urged a no-vote tactic against the established parties.
. Like SA, Spark is suspicious of the Labor Party leaders' tendency to conciliate the Democrats and their trade union supporters. They suspect that the bureaucrats might not be putting all their cards on the table, since they've refused so far to launch any campaign against Clinton and the Democrats. Not only did the Labor Party refuse to run candidates, they also refused to issue a stinging denunciation of the Democrats, or to urge workers to boycott supporting the Democrats.
. These groups are right to be suspicious of the bureaucrats. They should be even more
suspicious. The fact that they aren't shows the depth of old-style leftist politics, which these
groups have not been able to shake free of. They talk and talk about "build the working class
movement", but they don't want to analyze what's actually going on in the working class
movement and what it will take to revive it. They think the established trade union officials will
do the work for them -- will ride in on a white horse, declare the "Labor Party", and this will do
the trick of organizing the working class independent of the capitalists. But after decades of
domination of liberal-labor politics promoted on a daily basis by the union officialdom, the
workers will have to go through a period of profound political shakeup in order to establish their
independence. This will have to include a serious critique of the opportunists in the labor camp
and also revisionist forces among the leftists themselves.
"Bulletin" gets the goods on how the bureaucrats organize
. Finally, we come to the Bulletin Trots (Workers League), who are highly critical of the new Labor Party project. They promise a series of articles on the new party in their newspaper, The International Workers Bulletin. In the first of these, in their July 1, 1996 issue, they concentrate on the way the founding convention itself was organized. This was in typical bureaucrat fashion: top-down, without democratic discussion, and with leftist politics suppressed. First off, they make the point that rank-and-file members of some participating unions didn't even know about the convention:
. "Far from mobilizing the ranks of the labor movement for the building of a Labor Party, the Cleveland convention was organized behind the backs of the workers. Most of the unions which participated did not even inform their own members that the convention was taking place. The UMWA, for instance, has never reported the effort to establish the Labor Party in its magazine, UMW Journal. It endorsed the Labor Party only on the eve of the convention, sent only a handful of delegates, and yet cast 100 votes and secured a position for Trumka's nominee on the Labor Party's National Council. " (UMWA is the mine workers union; Trumka is the president of the union, also the new national secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.)
. There are two points here: first, that the founding of the Labor Party does not represent the victory of any mass upsurge among the workers themselves. The workers aren't even informed. Secondly, that the union bureaucrats guarantee a dominating position for themselves, even though they don't really "represent" the members of their unions.
. Bulletin goes on to describe how the convention was rigged: "All distribution of political material was prohibited, except that provided by Labor Party Advocates. " So any leftists who showed up with hopes of generating broader discussion were quashed.
. Now, how about the way the Labor Party leaders produced a program? "At dozens of meetings and conferences sponsored by Labor Party Advocates over the past five years, Mazzocchi and his supporters insisted that it was premature and even undemocratic to seek any discussion on program before establishing the Labor Party. The party's program would have to be decided democratically at the founding convention, they claimed. But when delegates arrived in Cleveland, they found a program, constitution and plan of action had already been worked out in advance by the leaders of the sponsoring unions . . . . " Very cute, the way the bureaucrats operate, isn't it?
. But wait. Couldn't participants in the convention offer alternative resolutions? Bulletin says no:"The Labor Party's resolutions committee, hand-picked by Mazzocchi, blocked consideration of any proposal not favored by the top union bureaucrats. The delegates were not informed of resolutions submitted by chapters or affiliated locals unless they were approved by the resolutions committee. No resolution not approved by this committee could be considered except by the vote of two-thirds of the delegates. " Consider all the energy and intelligence required by the bureaucrats to get all this planned out. Amazing, isn't it? Just think if they used this much planning to try and organize the unorganized, or push for higher wages, or -- but no, forget it, they're not about to do any of those things.
. But even this procedure leaves a bit of an out, you say; couldn't someone who was real well organized, and real determined, publicize his own alternative resolution and try to get the two-thirds vote to have it placed before the convention? Well, now let's consider the voting procedure:
. ". . . Of the nearly 3,000 delegate votes cast, a clear majority, about 1,600, were in the hands of the nine endorsing national unions . . . .
. "Another 908 votes were cast by local unions and nonendorsing national unions, giving full-time union officials nearly 90 percent of the total votes. Only 152 votes were cast by local chapters of Labor Party Advocates.
. "The endorsing unions received 100 votes each, with additional votes for each of their own locals which affiliated to the Labor Party. . . . the result was a huge bloc vote cast at the direction of a handful of top officials. Fourteen hundred people attended the convention, but four of them . . . cast a total of 1,075 votes between them.
. "By contrast, the 120 individuals who attended the convention as at-large delegates were allowed to cast two votes altogether. "
. Bulletin further makes the point that "this procedure was not voted on by the delegates or submitted for their consideration before the convention opened. It was simply announced as a fait accompli, as part of the convention rules. "
. One can't help wonder about the enthusiasts from Socialist Action. Aren't they embarrassed by this? Have they no shame?
. Bulletin goes on to describe how the organizational structure of the Labor Party was set up in the same way, with Mazzocchi and his bureaucrat friends guaranteed longstanding domination of the party. As a sidelight, they also point out that Jerry Brown appeared at the convention and "got the most enthusiastic response of any speaker"; which goes to show that Socialist Action was wrong in thinking that there was some kind of principled contradiction at work between the "unionists" like Mazzocchi and the "pro-demagogue" elements. Mazzocchi got his party based directly on the unions, just as he wanted; but he also opened the convention up to the demagogues, who preach the kind of politics Mazzocchi wants to impose on the workers.
. Thus, Bulletin gives a sharp critique of the Labor Party's founding convention. The question this raises, though, is: Why is Bulletin so critical of a "labor party based on the unions"? Isn't this just what Bulletin itself advocated for many years? Back in the 1980's Bulletin supporters were known as the foremost "knights of the labor party. " On any question, they would say the solution is to build a labor party. Then it would be pointed out to them that this means putting working class politics into the hands of the labor bureaucrats. And for this they had no answer (which doesn't mean, as those familiar with them know, that they fell silent).
. This culminated, at the time of the Persian Gulf war, in Bulletin's infamous demand that "the unions must vote" on the question of war. Every other leftist or progressive group was opposed to war and raising slogans like "no blood for oil. " But Bulletin stood out for not taking a position on this important political issue; instead they called for the unions to vote on the question. But who did they think was going to organize such a vote? -- Precisely the same stratum of labor bureaucrats who organized the voting at the Labor Party's founding convention.
. Perhaps Bulletin has changed. They say: "The Cleveland convention demonstrated, as the Workers League and the Socialist Equality Party have warned for several years, that it is impossible to build a political alternative for the working class based on the AFL-CIO. " So perhaps, since the Gulf war, Bulletin has become more critical of the labor bureaucrats. But then, in the past as well Bulletin was quite critical of the bureaucrats, at times. The Bulletin "method" was to combine naive faith in the bureaucrats (calls for a labor party, etc. ) with hysterical denunciations of the bureaucrats when the latter did not live up to their naive expectations.
. Perhaps, to some extent, this is just a sectarian difference. In the last few years Bulletin has
organized its own electoral vehicle, the Socialist Equality Party. There may be some common
points between this organization and the Labor Party -- for example, the Socialist Equality Party
also calls for a minimum wage of $10 an hour -- and Bulletin is no doubt anxious to differentiate
its formation from that of the union officials. In any case, so far they have made a contribution in
showing how the bureaucrats organized their convention, and this now throws the ball back into
the court of LRNA, SA, and other "labor party" supporters like Spark: Can they really stomach
such an organization?
Last changed on October 19, 2001.