The Labor Party’s Pittsburgh Convention

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

John Hinshaw

BETWEEN NOVEMBER 13-15 in Pittsburgh, over 1400 delegates from six national unions, over two hundred local unions and thirty-nine chapters of the Labor Party met for its first Constitutional Convention.

These delegates, representing trade union bodies whose memberships total over one million (and some thousands of party members), recommitted the LP to the comprehensive program adopted at the founding convention in Cleveland in 1996.

Most of the 1996 convention had been spent hammering out the framework of the party, its constitution and program.  Little time was spent developing specific strategies to build the party.  Thus two years later in Pittsburgh, delegates needed to deliberate on how they would build the party through issue-oriented and electoral campaigns.

Four major issue campaigns were launched (single-payer health care under the banner “Just Health Care,” no privatization of social security, a workers’ bill of rights, and fair trade) that are designed to root the party in the struggles of organized workers and help attract a mass membership.  These campaigns complement the 28th Amendment campaign, which seeks to guarantee everyone a right to a job at a living wage.

The convention also adopted a resolution initiated by the Black Caucus demanding a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, “courageous defender of the rights of the working class,” currently on death row.

The LP has approved a plan for running candidates in the future, but only those who are party members (i.e.  no “fusion” tickets) and only in localities where labor support and finances are sufficient to mount a credible campaign.

Why A Labor Party?

Most working class Americans are worried about their situation and that of the country: worried about the lack of jobs that pay decent wages and benefits, about HMOs, about the high cost of day care and education.  They are terrified that social security won’t be there when they retire.

Many trade unionists know that policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) do not work in the best interests of the people and environments of the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Those who have tried to organize a union know that workers have to jump through successive rings of fire (while the boss and government soak them in gasoline) just to gain effective freedom of speech, association and oh, yes a union contract.

The belief that big business has too much control over the policies of both major parties and the government is widespread.  And yet in the last election, over ninety-eight percent of the incumbents who ran for Congress were re-elected.  The AFL-CIO continues to endorse politicians who voted for NAFTA, because their opponents were even worse.

This is the daunting problem that the Labor Party, as an organization of, by and for working people, has taken on-the workers’ equivalent of David going up against the corporate Goliath, the first such attempt in decades.

Corporations have fantastic amounts of money which enables them to own most of the mass media and almost all the politicians.  Even when unionists realize the Democratic party is cutting them off at the ankles, they know that the Republicans would start at the knees.  Furthermore, most have worked so long within the Democratic party that they can’t even imagine how to break free.

It gets worse: Over eighty-five percent of workers aren’t even unionized.  Thus the problems of the LP go to the heart of the complex relationships among the U.S. political system, capitalism and the labor movement.

Only those who enjoy a challenge, or the prospect of a grueling political marathon whose benefits will likely accrue to the next generation, should read on. The faint of heart can stop reading here.

An Organizing Approach

To the extent that the LP has attracted media attention or analysis, it is on the question of its electoral strategy.  The 1996 founding convention ruled out alliances, endorsements and running LP candidates, a move that frankly confounded most political analysts.

Many left-wing journalists followed the tack taken by The Nation‘s Alexander Cockburn and JoAnn Wypijewski, who viewed the non-electoral position as evidence of a reluctance to truly break with the Democratic Party.

Even amongst supporters, such as veteran labor journalists Jane Slaughter and Kim Moody, skepticism reigned.  In a recent issue of Labor Notes, Moody and Slaughter argued that the LP should run its own candidates since most people cannot fathom a non-electoral political party.

Such views dovetailed with some party members who argued that the electoral process will attract members, organizers and the backing of local unions.  In the coming years, that theory will be put to the test as localities burning to run candidates will put forward proposals through the local, state and national levels of the party.

The party has called for an “organizing approach to politics.” This would signal a departure from past practice for both labor and the left. While the AFL-CIO has proven effective at getting candidates elected through endorsements, donations and mobilization of staff and members, “pro-labor” politicians have rarely stayed loyal to workers.

Even in 1993, when Democrats controlled Congress and the Presidency, the union movement got NAFTA as its reward.  Clinton-style Democrats are not so much the “lesser of two evils” but proof of the “evils of two lessers.”

While the AFL-CIO undoubtedly aided the Democrats in the recent election, it is extremely doubtful that these politicians will enact any substantial reforms.

As for the typical electoral campaigns of the left, these are “educational” in nature and have made socialist parties the powerhouses that they are today.  No one in the LP wants to be a two per cent footnote in the history textbooks.

Building the party and its platform is LP members’ goal. While Ralph Nader spoke at the convention, LP members mostly would argue that his run for presidency on the Green ticket (a platform he refused to endorse) would be an unacceptable breach of LP protocol.  The LP also rejects the fusionist approach of the New Party, which has almost exclusively elected Democrats.

And while the Greens have succeeded in becoming the third party in much of New Mexico and Maine, the option of acting as a so-called “spoiler” is not open to the Labor Party.  Like it or not, the practical result of electing right-wing Republicans at this point would likely trigger a tsunami within the House of Labor that would sink the LP.

The Base of Support

Thus far, the support of unionists has been fairly broad, but is strongest amongst those unions unafraid of confrontation with corporations.  These are generally modest-sized, notably the United Electrical workers (with 30,000 members), the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (80,000), the California Nurses Association (28,000) and United Mine Workers (40,000).

Several large local unions were in attendance, such as Teamsters 705 (15,000 members), International Brotherhood of Dupont Workers (23,000), District 1199P (12,000), SEIU 250 (40,000).

Since the last convention, support amongst the unions has grown.  For instance, while the UMWA had almost no presence two years ago, at this convention seventy-five delegates from numerous locals were in attendance.

Party membership is uneven.  One small UE local in Massachusetts has forty-five LP members, while another in Pennsylvania with 3,500 members has seventeen.

Several SEIU locals have affiliated with the LP, a process aided by a letter inviting them to attend the LP convention by its President Andy Stern.  Probably because of the success of the Democrats in the last round of elections, Stern then began to lambaste the LP as premature.

Yet a sign that labor is relatively open to new ways of thinking is that even a staunch Democrat such as Steelworkers President George Becker spoke at the convention.  During his talk Becker blasted the greed of corporations, but refused to say that workers face a class struggle, resorting instead to nationalist protectionism (especially against the import of steel cheapened by the Asian currency collapse).

The following speaker, Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove argued “there is a class struggle and working people need a party that represents them.”

Campaigns and Party Building

Once the party has a million members, with much broader and deeper support amongst the unions, that Labor Party would represent a real and hopefully genuine political alternative to business-as-usual politics.  The problem is that there is no easy path to get the party to that happy point-no sure-fire candidate, advertisement or issue campaign that will be the magic bullet.

It took over fifty years for labor to get into the mess it is in. It shouldn’t take that long to get out of it, but it is likely to be a long time, and a lot of hard, unglamorous work. As David Campbell said, given the nature of the class struggle, we will not simply elect ourselves to power.

The LP has mapped out five issue campaigns designed to recruit members or unions to these issues and ultimately to the party.  In the future, these campaigns will complement elections.  Right now, they are designed to attract members and raise workers’ expectations and to shift the national debate (or lack thereof) on workers’ issues.

One campaign designed primarily for industrial workers is fair trade.  Five years after NAFTA, LP members report that unionists are still furious about that bill, not surprising since its effects continue to ravage industrial workers.

Organizing for a workers’ bill of rights is a long-term campaign designed to change the workplace.  Most workers have been so used to giving up our free speech at the workplace, we hardly notice the irony that protecting corporations’ rights to free speech are the justification for a broad range of anti-union tactics protected by the NLRB.

Extending the Bill of Rights to the workplace would not just protect workers, it would sharply curtail the privileges of corporations.  At present, after all, the First Amendment simply protects us from the government, not from corporations.

The social security campaign is primarily defensive.  It rejects calls to privatize social security, in part or full, as profiteering pure and simple.  There is no “crisis” that can’t be fixed simply using realistic numbers of economic growth or family size. Any shortfall (and the LP calls for broad improvement of the social safety net) would be financed through taxes on the rich.

Both the Social Security campaign and the call for a single-payer “Just Health Care” system are designed to attract the support of non-LP members (or should I say future ones) to fight for reforms that are easy to understand and would improve virtually everyone’s lives.

Unity and the Right to Choose

Debate on the health-care campaign largely focused on the language around a woman’s right to choose.  The founding convention had adopted language that linked a universal health care system to a “full range of family planning and reproductive services to men and women.” The Pittsburgh convention strengthened this language, by adding “including the right to continue or terminate a pregnancy.  We oppose any forms of coerced sterilization.”

While some groups focused on demanding that the term abortion be included in the platform, this move was firmly rejected by the convention as a whole and by the women’s caucus.  Attempts to strike out the section were also roundly trounced.

At the close of debate, Baldemar Velasquez, President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) addressed the convention.  He argued that he and his members believed that life began at conception, but eloquently argued that building unity in the class struggle was more important.

The question, Velasquez stressed, was not whether FLOC would accept the LP, of course it would.  The question was whether the LP would accept the FLOC. The response was a standing ovation.

A Generation’s Struggle

What party members make of these campaigns, issue or electoral, is largely up to them. The struggle to make principled labor politics a practical matter will be this generation’s pivotal struggle.  The fate of our children, and their children, depend heavily on the outcome.

Those who are interested in the Labor Party should contact the national LP office, one of the affiliated unions, or the chapter nearest you.

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The Labor Party Chapters

FOR SOME LABOR Party members, the chapters are “the political driving force in the party.”  Proponents of this view cite the fact that ninety percent of the resolutions submitted for debate at the convention originated in the chapters.

Others view the chapters as enclaves for the radical left. The sheer volume of resolutions coming out of the chapters reinforces the perspective that chapters are the stronghold of “resolutionary socialism” and little else.

As one might imagine, the actual history and prospect for chapters is more complex.  The chapter convention on November 12 allowed a rare opportunity to hear from chapter members about what they have been up to since the last chapter convention eighteen months ago.

Almost thirty chapters were represented from around the country.  The membership and foci of activity in the chapters has been as diverse as the country itself.  The vast majority of the chapters had membership well under fifty, had low levels of involvement by members, and were frequently demoralized by their slow growth.

Roughly half a dozen chapters appeared relatively vibrant (NY Metro, Lehigh Valley, Detroit, LA, Metro Pittsburgh, Johnson County, Iowa).  A few were in disarray.

A few with deep roots in labor (KC, LA, NJ, Ohio and NY state organizations) have worked hard to convince other union locals or members to endorse and affiliate to the labor party.  New Jersey was a striking success in this regard.

In other areas such as Toledo, Detroit and Chicago, even activists with long histories in unions have found it difficult to make inroads in the face of extremely close relationships between the Central Labor Councils and the Democratic Party.

In those chapters, the membership of the party is heavily unionized, but endorsements and affiliations are coming at a far slower pace. Trade union leadership and involvement did not necessarily translate into dramatic growth.

A few chapter delegates (such as Philly and Golden Gate) described their relationship to local unionists already in the LP as either standoffish or stormy.  Delegate after delegate described the disheartening loss of membership once national LP members had to indicate that they wanted to join the chapter in their area.

In most areas, around one third to one half of members in the national LP have joined chapters.  Some chapters (LA, New York Metro, DC, Detroit, etc) have regained much of this lost ground.  Newer chapters (Lehigh Valley, Johnson County, Metro Pittsburgh) had formed since 1996 and had thus recruited most of their members.

Most chapter reporters panned the 28th Amendment as a recruitment vehicle although others (notably San Diego, LA and more grudgingly Connecticut) endorsed its role in convincing members that they were in the mainstream.  The contradiction was that while most people in the community supported the 28th Amendment, very few joined the party on this basis and LP membership involvement in the campaign invariably plummeted after one or two canvasses.

Most chapter delegates looked forward to the Just Health Care campaign as a way to raise a more manageable issue which can attract support from other organizations.

Most chapters that have experienced dramatic growth had a few common denominators.  They all had a core of leaders who worked extremely hard. The chapter made a recruitment plan and stuck to it.

Some found that frequent public forums attracted members (DC), although most found that growth resulted from a mix of public forums, strike support work and one-on-one recruitment (Detroit, Lehigh Valley, NYC, LA, Pittsburgh).  In all cases, members were enthusiastic about the LP and its prospects.

In the past, chapters functioned as the organization of at-large members of the party.  Under the reorganization, in which they need to enroll paper members as actual chapter members, the chapters will have to play a dramatically different and more difficult role.

They will need to become capable of coordinating electoral and campaign work in political units, whether those are cities, counties, legislative districts or states.  The level of financial and organizational demands levied on them will increase, and will likely result in dramatically different kinds of chapters in the future.

While some chapter delegates referred to plans for reorganization as the “death to the chapters” resolution, chapters in fact now have five times the previous number of votes on the Interim National Council.  The future of the chapters is difficult to forecast, although that they will clearly rise or fall with the party as a whole. —J.H.

John Hinshaw is a member of the Labor Party in Pittsburgh and a sympathizer of Solidarity.

ATC 78, January-February 1999