Founding the Labor Party

Against the Current, No. 63, July/August 1996

Dan La Botz

IN A HALL bedecked with banners portraying the history of American labor, over 1400 delegates, from forty-four states and representing nearly two million union members, met in Cleveland, Ohio June 6-9 to found the Labor Party, a new political party in the United States committed to fight against the corporate agenda and for economic justice.

In the keynote address Bob Wages, president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) told the convention, “We’re going to organize a political party that represents the working class in this country….We going to organize to take our country back.

“Only by organizing from the bottom up are we going to create movement that becomes a political party that takes on the money interests,” said Wages.  “Our country stands at a crossroads.  We have some basic decisions to makes as a society .  .  .  .  Will this country be run for the money class or committed to its poorest constituencies who make it run every day?”

The convention adopted a program titled “A Call for Economic Justice” that proposed a constitutional amendment to guarantee every American a job at a living wage, a minimum wage of $10 an hour indexed to rise with inflation, a 32- hour work week, and a universal single-payer health program.  The program promises to end corporate welfare “as we know it,” supports affirmative action and equal rights for immigrants, and condemns sexual harassment and hate crimes-such as the burning of Black churches.

The party decided, however, on a two-year moratorium on running candidates, a decision thus deferred to the organization’s next national convention.

Hightower, Brown, Nader, Strikers

Speakers at the convention included Bob Wages of OCAW, Robert Clark of the United Electrical workers (UE), and Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).

Jim Hightower, former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture and Jerry Brown, former Governor of California also addressed the convention, bringing delegates to their feet cheering their vehement attacks on the corporate agenda of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

“Who fights for the working class?” asked Hightower.  “Not the Democrats.  They’re sleeping with Wall Street, but you and me are getting screwed.  It’s the working class that speaks for the working class.”

The main divide in American society, said Hightower, is not right to left, but top to bottom, and the job of the Labor Party was to organize the bottom.

“I’ve come here,” said Jerry Brown, “because I believe we are on the cusp of a change.

“I sometimes tell people,” said Brown, “that I’m a recovering politician, and as part of my recovery I have to tell the truth.”

That truth, he stated, is that “You cannot derive economic justice from corporate plunder,” and that “the political parties are nothing more than the end products of corporate plunder, Republicans and Democrats alike.”

Speaking from the floor, consumer advocate and Green Party candidate for president, Ralph Nader told the delegates, “This convention will be looked upon as the rebirth of the labor movement after so many years of being subordinated to corporate power.”

Nader told the delegates that the corporations had “no allegiance to this nation,” but rather “cross the globe looking for brutal dictators to suppress labor.”  Nader won a round of applause when he told the convention, “A society rots from the top down, and it reconstructs from the bottom up.”

Margaret Trimer-Hartley, a striking “Detroit Free Press” reporter, addressed the convention and outlined some lessons from the nearly year-old strike.  The conference passed a motion to urge AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to call a national march on Detroit and took up a collection for the newspaper strikers, raising $7,000.  Delegates purchased and wore the Detroit strikers T-shirts and bought the latest issue of the strikers’ paper, the “Detroit Sunday Journal”.

Driving Forces

The driving forces behind the founding convention of the labor party were two labor unions: OCAW and the United Electrical workers (UE).  Tony Mazzocchi, a long-time OCAW leader and noted fighter for occupational and environmental health, has been the central figure in the creation of the new organization.  The UE, a small, independent union has for decades advocated the creation of a working-class political party in the United States.

A third, railroad union, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way, also endorsed the labor party’s forerunner organization Labor Party Advocates (LPA), and had expected to send a sizeable delegation to the convention.  That weekend, however, most of its leaders had to be in Washington for a government-convened contract dispute arbitration panel.

While OCAW and UE represented the two largest union delegations at the convention, by the opening of the convention nine international unions and 117 locals or intermediate union bodies endorsed the convention.  In addition, half a dozen workers organizations, including Black Workers for Justice (BWfJ), attended as accredited delegations.

There were delegations from the International Longshore and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), the California Nurses Association and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC).  Both the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the United Mine Workers (UMW) endorsed, but did not bring contingents of any size. Although the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) did not endorse, there was a sizeable SEIU contingent, who organized themselves into an ongoing caucus.

The convention’s social composition did not reflect that of American labor; in particular Black workers were under- represented.  Women probably represented no more than twenty- five percent of the total.  The United Auto Workers (UAW) probably has the most efficient political machine in the country, but the UAW leadership is strongly committed to the Democratic Party and deeply hostile to the idea of a labor party or any other form of independent political action.  A few members of the UAW’s opposition caucus the New Directions Movement were present, and a handful of progressive local UAW presidents.

There were surprisingly few Teamsters and only a few members of Teamster for a Democratic Union, probably the most important U.S. rank-and-file organization, perhaps because Teamsters are quite busy with the election campaign in their own union which pits incumbent reformer Ron Carey against the old guard’s candidate Jimmy Hoffa, Jr.

In addition to the labor union organizations, which represented perhaps eighty percent of the votes at the convention, there were also delegates from the nearly forty LPA chapters as well as at-large delegates.  Many of the chapters involve radical activists and members of left organizations.

They had an opportunity to speak and present amendments to the floor-a convention, as many delegates noted, far more open and democratic than that of most labor unions-though throughout the four major labor union organizations held a clear majority of the votes.

Controversial Issues

The controversial issues debated by the convention were three: 1) the role of the former Labor Party Advocates chapters in the new party; 2) the question of whether or not to run or endorse candidates in elections; and 3) the question of whether to use the word “abortion” in the party’s program.

The chapters represented five percent of the convention’s weighted votes, but they represented a large number of LPA activists.  The chapters feared that the larger labor organizations might disenfranchise them, but in the end the convention reached a compromise which could give the chapters some representation on the national leadership bodies, and would also give them their own convention to choose their representatives.

Probably the most important issue was the question of not the Labor Party would run its own candidates in elections.  The OCAW leadership argued that running candidates was not wise or feasible at this time. Not wise because unions’ funds and organizer resources, which have so far bankrolled LPA, cannot be used for partisan political campaigns.  Not feasible because the new party has yet to organize a mass following and substantial organization.

More radical critics argued that while the Labor Party might not be ready for a national political election or presidential campaign, it could undertake city, county or state elections.  Many, both among the unionists and among some of the radicals, felt that the party would grow through school board, city council or county board campaigns, taking its message to local voters by knocking on doors and talking to neighbors.

A small minority of radicals wanted the Labor Party to explicitly reject support for Democratic or Republican party candidates, fearing that if the Labor Party did not run candidates and/or explicitly reject support for the two major parties, particularly the Democratic Party, it would be reduced to becoming a mere pressure group rather than an independent vehicle for working-class organization.  But that position went down to defeat under a barrage from the union bloc.

The convention decided to endorse no candidates for two years, deferring the decision to the next convention.  The Labor Party may engage in other sorts of political campaigns, such as the living wage campaigns, anti- replacement work legislation, pro-worker reform of labor laws, and support for national health care.

In an interview with the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” immediately following the convention, Maryanne Young, a member of the Constitution Committee, told a reporter that she saw the Labor Party as initially playing a role like that of the Christian Coalition.

“If we are a unified voice, maybe one of those other parties would listen to us,” Young said. Those remarks probably well express the direction feared by the Labor Party’s more radical members.

The third controversial issue had to do with the question of reproductive rights.  The platform committee’s proposed language implied a women’s right to sex education, contraception and abortion, calling for “informed choice and unimpeded access to a full range of family planning and reproductive services for men and women.”

This wording avoided any explicit mention of the word “abortion.”  Some feminist delegates-though feminist and reproductive rights activist delegates attending this convention were divided in their opinions on the question-proposed that the convention make explicit women’s right to abortion.  (During the floor discussion the abortion plank was amended to include opposition to forced sterilization.)

The debate was highly polarized for what was a small but significant difference about how to present what everyone agreed about: that the Labor Party take a pro-choice position.  After the vote was taken, and the amendment was defeated, the FLOC’s largely Roman Catholic members cheered and waved flags.

Motions from the Rank and File

Throughout the convention various groups caucused, not only the labor unions, but also women and African Americans.  The Black caucus brought amendments to the floor calling for a clear stand in opposition to racism, while women called for fair representation on all leadership bodies.  Some motions came from individual members.

Early on Mark Dimondstein, president of the Greater Greensboro Area Local 711 of the American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO, made the following amendment to the preamble to the constitution: “We believe in a country that honors and respects the rights of workers in all other lands as well as our own.”  The amendment passed unanimously.

The convention proceeded remarkably smoothly, fairly and relatively democratically.  At one point the ILWU proposed an amendment to the constitution, and was promptly shut down by chairman Bob Wages, who could count on the support of his giant OCAW delegation.

During the lunch break, Wages and his colleagues reconsidered the decision, returned to the hall proposing to reopen the discussion, then turned the floor over to the longshore delegates.  It was at this point that a political debate over whether to run candidates occurred.

Organizations held hospitality suites at the convention.  FLOC filled a dining room with a hundred people who listened as Baldemar Velasquez recounted the history of FLOC’s eight- year campaign to organize Campbell soups and Vlasic pickles.  Velasquez then turned to the new Labor Party and made a mystical prediction:

“Brothers and sisters, you have no idea what an historic occasion this is, such hope and such expectation.  In the spiritual realm of life, the heavens are shaking, the nations are trembling, the earth is rattling.  We are witnessing a reordering of the forces that will shake this world, based on the people who roll up their sleeves and go to work every day.”

Where Does It Go From Here?

In the end, through a process of debate and votes on the floor accompanied by behind the scenes negotiation and compromise among the OCAW, UE, SEIU and ILWU, the delegates adopted a Constitution and a program and proclaimed themselves a Labor Party.

What they failed to do, however, was to decide on a program of action for the next two years.  That task was delegated to an interim leadership body. Many delegates indicated that in the meantime, they would go home and recruit members, engage in strike support, work on the campaign for a living wage, and hope that the interim leadership would soon give them clearer direction.

Some delegates are working toward a national march in Detroit to support the striking newspaper unions.  Another immediate focus will be to aid the California Nurses Association-backed referendum opposing the gutting of health care on the California ballot.

When the convention learned that liberal Democrat Mayor Michael White, elected with labor union votes, was proposing to “blunt collective bargaining law” (as the local headlines said), the entire convention promptly marched to city hall to join local unionists in protest.  The demonstration showed the potential of a militant working-class party prepared to challenge the Democrats.  Whether or not that incident anticipates the future career of this party remains to be seen.

Dan La Botz is a member of the National Writers Union/UAW and was an at-large delegate to the founding convention of the Labor Party.