The Labor Party in the Big Picture

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

Jane Slaughter and Rodney Ward

THE LABOR PARTY convention was inspiring.  At the Detroit chapter’s report-back meeting, locked-out newspaper workers talked about how good it felt to be in a convention hall where everyone would support you, “unlike the Democrats and Republicans.”

Authorizing the possibility of electoral campaigns means that, in the places where those happen, we have the potential to attract a whole different layer of members.

A successful meeting puts us on track for the future.  What we’ve got here is really an organizing committee for a labor party.  No shame in that; given the forces that back the Labor Party—a sometimes uneasy coalition of small unions and the left—it’s perhaps remarkable that the group has held its own.

Whether we get from here to a party, however, depends first and foremost on a revitalization of the labor movement. Any expectation that we can grow into a powerful force just by dint of our own hard work could lead to demoralization.

It is no accident that the Labor Party in Detroit has attracted activist newspaper strikers but made few inroads in the stagnant UAW. What the Labor Party can accomplish is to prepare well to participate in and build on the upsurges that activists are working to bring about in the labor movement.

Let’s look at where we are. Labor Party leaders have met one important goal: to establish the party as a legitimate part of the labor movement.  It’s not a pariah.  Their idea from the beginning has been to situate the Labor Party as an alternative, to be there when union leaders finally give up on the Democrats.

But look what the party is up against: Evidence indicates that there is no insult the Democrats can hand out to working people that is too great for our current labor leaders to bear.

The people who are running American unions today believe in corporate competitiveness, not class independence.  Unions that declare the boss the partner in the workplace will not mobilize to fight the boss in politics.

When John Sweeney brags about the AFL-CIO’s independence, he means that they sometimes endorse Republicans.  No matter what great work the Labor Party does, it will not win such leaders over. Worse, the Hoffa victory in the Teamsters is a bigger setback to the Labor Party than a good health care campaign will be an advance.

Therefore, to a large extent, qualitative growth of the Labor Party—growth that could make us a force to be reckoned with—depends not only on what we do as part of the Labor Party but on how successful we are in building movements willing to take on the boss and take back the unions.

The LP’s leading organizer Tony Mazzocchi has said that he knows he can’t recruit top labor leaders, in the main; his plan, instead, is to win over local and regional leaders, who will then pressure the higher levels.  Quite right.  But, again, it will take more than the Labor Party’s own campaigns around health care and Social Security for sizable numbers of those leaders to make the break.

To be sure, the Labor Party won’t sit around and wait for big developments.  Its campaigns will provide excellent education about the class nature of our society and be a vehicle for activists from different unions to meet and support each other.

With the Labor Party continuing to spread the notion of labor’s political independence, the opportunities provided by an upsurge in the labor movement will not be lost.

Jane Slaughter and Rodney Ward are members of the Detroit Labor Party and of Solidarity.

ATC 78, January-February 1999