Beyond ’92: For a Labor Party

Against the Current, No. 39, July/August 1992

Tony Mazzocchi

IT’S A PLEASURE to share the platform with other speakers who represent symbols of a growing expression for independent political action, which is one of the hopeful signs that are emerging toward a political force in this country to represent the interests of working Americans, the overwhelming majority of our people.

Labor Party Advocates is a culmination of an expression, not only of the rank and file from my own union but of other unions. About three years ago, as secretary-treasurer of my union in charge of political activity, I reviewed a resolution passed by our convention in 1981, which essentially said: We’ve been talking about the political parties and their failure to do what should be done, but we’ve never consulted our rank and file to see what they feel.

I thought this was a worthy resolution, and that the time had come to talk to our own rank and file. I therefore had a poll conducted in 1989 among our members on what people thought about the political system in this country, set up by professional pollsters, which went to one of every sixty members, all coded for geography, race, gender and age. Our pollster friends told us we’d need to make sure we really had a broad characterization of our membership.

We were told to expect a 3% return. Since the mailing had a stamped return envelope, I was expecting some angry letters telling us where to stick the union. Instead we got a 20% return. Some said it was the first letter they’d gotten from an International union officer soliciting their opinion!

People answered the questions, and wrote extensively what they thought about the political scene. Amazingly enough, responses were the same by gender, race or geography–whether it was from a small Mormon town in Utah or from Philadelphia didn’t matter. The only difference we found was among age groups, where people aged 55-65 tended to be a little more conservative, though not much. Over 55% rejected both parties as the parties of corporate interests, not their interests, and said it was time for a new party, a labor party.

In our union (Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers) we work with a lot of brain-altering chemicals, so I thought maybe that caused the result! So we started talking with other union groups on a regional or local level, asking them to take similar polls. About sixty unions have done so, from hospital to state, county and municipal to mine workers to professional workers. By now I can predict any poll coming out of any local union. All polls track the same way within a few percentage points–55% or a little more call for a new party and reject the existing ones.

We thought that was sufficient direction. We did speak to the rank and file as we’d been instructed. A number of us across the country recognized, of course, that formation of a new party is a formidable undertaking. It’s not easy creating a party that will have a meaningful impact on our lives.

So we developed a long-term strategy and a long view, understanding that this will be a long, arduous road to the creation of a party, and that a party would have to be created before a platform and program could be developed for it. That program and platform would have to be developed from its membership–we have seen too many programs from the top down. It was time to really follow the tenets of democratic organization.

Labor Party Advocates very simply is a group of people, attempting to recruit others to one idea, that there will be a time when we need to form a labor party, a new party of working people. We have an initial target date of late 1993 or early `94. To validate this idea we need approximately 100,000 members, across the United States and representative by gender, certainly by race, and by geography. It must be a truly representative group, or the effort should be abandoned.

The message that we need a labor party, and that it should grow from the bottom up, is resonating among the rank and file of the trade union movement. It intends to organize working people. That’s the general term I use for all people who could, should or would work for wages if the opportunity were there. That constitutes 90% of the people in this country, both organized and unorganized.

Our initial effort is among the organized sector, for several reasons, certainly because it’s easier to reach, it has more resources, and also organizing skills. This effort is very simple in its construction. We recruit people to the idea of a labor party, with low expectations of what will be done immediately. Right now it’s like an organizing drive for a union somewhere that a union doesn’t exist, trying to reach a critical mass of people.

We hope to achieve this and hold a convention in two years. The delegates will be broadly representative, and then a program will be developed. Thus we now have no leaders–I’m not the “leader” of Labor Party Advocates, I’m one of the organizers, as anyone can be. I do have the advantage of being a bureaucrat, who can travel a little more extensively allowing the message to be broadcast.

This is an effort with little resources. Our resources come from people who spend $20 to join. It must be that way, financed by the people themselves; it can’t be hooked to the star of a foundation or people with a lot of money.

I am asked whether we will act in coalition with other groups. I say we can only coalesce when we’re an entity. Once an entity is created and defines itself, it can decide to coalesce. We don’t exist yet; we’re an organizing drive. We have LPA people who are involved in the NOW efforts, the efforts of Ron Daniels and others. There are also people involved in the existing political configurations, which isn’t the choice of many of us.

LPA is a parallel development, one which will take some time. It’s also a leap of faith, based on the fact that people are so discontented. Working people unlike ever before feel that things will be worse for their children than for themselves; people are rejecting the existing political structures; they are alienated from most of the institutions.

A new party is going to be organized, whether by the kind of progressive people who occupy this stage or by the right. A vacuum will not continue to exist. And if one had to bet on the result, the right of course are more powerfully equipped. They have a program that feeds into the biases and frustrations among the Amerrican people.

So a commitment to build a new party, which truly represents the interests of working people, is an imperative. How it will be done can’t be fully spelled out. We are all learning as we go along. We are also recognizing that a party can’t be built on puff; it has to be based on people. If we can’t do it that way, we will definitely abandon what we are about to do.

Our hope is that those of you engaged in other political efforts will hedge your bets and also be part of Labor Party Advocates. Given current trends, if there is any labor movement left in a few years, that in itself will be somewhat miraculous. As a trade unionist I see no other way than to organize an independent political movement. The message as I said is resonating; I am hopeful.

[Tony Mazzocchi gave this talk as part of a panel on independent politics in Philadelphia at the Community Labor Forum.]

July-August 1992, ATC 39