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Can Labor break with Democrats?

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THE TWO main bosses’ parties in the USA – the Republicans and the Democrats – staged their conventions in August to crown Bob Dole and Bill Clinton as their standardbearers in the November presidential contest. But June witnessed the birth of a new political party that claims to be a voice for the organised working class.

The founding conference took place in the “rustbelt” city of Cleveland, Ohio, where the “liberal” Democratic mayor has sought to tear up negotiated agreements with local government unions.

Representatives at the meeting on 6–9 June came from labour movement organisations with a combined membership of one million. The Cleveland conference attracted 1,400 delegates from 44 of the 50 states. Most of them were officials or activists in important trade unions.

A driving force behind the party’s formation has come from the left bureaucrats who run the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ Union (OCAW), particularly its president Robert Wages and its former secretary-treasurer Tony Mazzochi.

The other principal impetus has been a coalition of forces around the organisation Labor Party Advocates, first established in 1991 and closely associated with the journal Labor Notes. This publication has provided a mouthpiece for groupings like New Directions in the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Teamsters for a Democratic Union, both of which have achieved success in ousting the most corrupt, right-wing union bureaucrats – albeit with the help of state intervention in the case of the Teamsters.

In addition to OCAW members, there were representatives from the United Mineworkers, the west coast International Longshoremen’s Union (which has been at the forefront of international support for the Liverpool dockers), the Stalinist-dominated United Electrical Workers and several public sector unions including the American Federation of Government Employees and the California Nurses’ Association.
In addition to this national union support, substantial financial donations for the founding convention also came from local branches of the Teamsters, the Bakers’ Union and the UAW.

The event also attracted support from strikers battling the press barons at the Detroit News and from “labor’s war zone” in Decatur, Illinois, where thousands of workers have been on protracted strikes or locked out by various multinational bosses.

In a keynote speech to the conference, OCAW’s president Wages spoke of the need for a party that will “organise workers against organised bosses and capital”.

The new Labor Party, however, is a far from revolutionary organisation. Wages has characterised it as “somewhere between the old British Labour Party and continental social democrats”. But some some of its demands would shock Tony Blair.

US Labor’s inaugural conference adopted a 16-point manifesto including a call for the introduction of a four-day, 32-hour working week with no loss of pay, a minimum wage of $10 (£6.50) an hour to be constitutionally guaranteed and a comprehensive system of public healthcare. African-American workers were under-represented among the conference delegates, but a 50-strong black caucus did introduce a commitment to combating racism.

The party has little to say, however, about US immigration controls which have targeted Latino workers with mounting ruthlessness. America’s Labor Party also failed to take a clear position on the most hotly contested social question in US politics: abortion rights.

Despite pledging support to the programme’s progressive demands, Wages made it plain that the new party was not about to challenge the private ownership of capital. The platform also had nothing of substance to say about the “foreign policy” of US imperialism, either in critical support of besieged Cuba or against the US military presence in Bosnia.

Without a willingness to openly confront the power of private capital, and the might of the state that ultimately defends it, the party’s calls for radical changes are doomed to remain nothing more than a pious wish-list. US Labor adopted a call for 50% cut in the Pentagon’s budget, effectively condoning the other half: an annual military expenditure of $140 (£90.9) billion.

So whilst the party’s launch may symbolise the start of a sea change in the consciousness of the US working class, it would be premature to describe the Cleveland event as an historic turning point.
In fact, there is good reason to question the willingness of the party’s key figures from the union bureaucracy to break decisively from the Democrats, who have generally enjoyed the support of the US union bureaucracy since Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.

The fledgling organisation will not be entering the presidential contest between incumbent Democrat Clinton and the Republicans’ Bob Dole, though it appears that some Labor supporters may be mounting independent Congressional candidacies. The conference adopted a position of postponing any independent electoral activity for a minimum of two years, when the party is due to stage its next national gathering.
This does not signify a progressive rejection of electoralism; it does call into question whether the new party will prove different from the American Labor Party of the 1930s, which under the influence of the Communist Party threw its weight behind Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election at the very time that union militancy was reaching an historic peak.

Elements of the Labor Party leadership clearly see the organisation as little more than a pressure group on the Democrats. The conference rejected a proposal that would have categorically denied Democrats the Labor Party’s endorsement.

There is a real danger that, in practice, the organisation will serve as left cover for the new mainstream leadership of the AFL-CIO (the US equivalent of the TUC) around its recently elected president John Sweeney. Sweeney may appear to be a dynamic radical, compared to his all but invisible predecessor, Lane Kirkland, but his strategy remains hitching organised labor’s wagon to the Democrats.

The AFL-CIO is throwing some $35 (£23.4) million behind Clinton’s re-election effort and the campaign of Congressional Democrats seeking to take the federal legislature back from Republican Newt Gingrich. This figure far exceeds spending on the bureaucrats’ “union summer” initiative, designed to recruit new union members, especially in the southern states with their tradition of implacable hostility to organised labor.
For all his rhetoric about rebuilding the unions in the USA from the grassroots, Sweeney has been fulsome in his praise of Clinton for doing “a great job as president”.

The Clinton administration’s record, however, has only served to swell the potential audience for a new party, claiming to represent the working class. In office, Clinton has either ignored or barely fulfilled his meagre pledges of the 1992 campaign, finally signing legislation to raise the minimum wage fours years into his administration.

He has failed to introduce a promised measure to ban the hiring of scab labour as permanent replacements for strikers, a feature of several key strikes in the past decade including the Bridgestone/Firestone dispute which continues after more than two years.

The Clinton years have actually seen the gap between rich and poor in the US grow at a faster rate than during Ronald Reagan’s years. Clinton has gone along with much of the Republican Congressional agenda, ratifying drastic cuts in social welfare spending including the Medicare programme.

At the end of July, in his most cynical betrayal yet, Clinton agreed to a Republican bill that ends universal entitlement to the most basic welfare provision. It is legislation that predictably targets single mothers, demanding that any woman under 18 with a child must live with an adult and continue in school in order to be eligible for any benefits.

Other provisions of the bill strip unemployed adults between the ages of 18 and 50 of any right to claim food stamps in a country where virtually all unemployment benefit dries up after12 months. The legislation’s thinly disguised racism becomes obvious in its attack on legal immigrants who are not yet US citizens. They are denied access both to food stamps and any Supplemental Social Insurance payment.
Meanwhile, job insecurity has become even more commonplace in the Clinton years, with some 2.5 million workers losing their jobs in the bosses’ restructuring of key corporations since 1991, while real wages have continued to stagnate for the majority of the US working class.

But the Clinton years have also seen a number of bitter local or sectional struggles, born out of the anger felt by many workers at an endless series of “giveback” contracts in industries from aerospace (Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas) to cars (General Motors). Other local battles, such as those in Detroit and Decatur, have fuelled a growing opposition to the AFL-CIO’s debilitating relationship with the Democrats generally and so bolstered the potential appeal of a new party.

The US Labor Party might give voice to that discontent. Despite its reformist programme, the emergence of a workers’ party of some magnitude in the world’s largest imperialist power is a significant development that US revolutionaries must relate to through a variety of tactics. The chances of transforming this organisation into an instrument for socialist revolution are probably slim, but it would be sectarian folly to dismiss the US Labor Party out of hand.

At present, the party leadership appears to be far more tolerant of organised leftists than Arthur Scargill’s SLP in Britain.

For example, Militant Labour’s US sister organisation and USFI supporters around the paper Socialist Action have been able to organise quite openly in the midst of the founding conference. In the coming months, revolutionary Marxists in the USA face a patient struggle to win the best militants attracted to the Labor Party to a revolutionary programme and the kind of combat organisation required to overthrow capitalism in its still dominant imperialist heartland.

They must also confront the immediate task of forcing the new party’s current leadership, composed largely of union bureaucrats, to fight Clinton with more than rhetoric, challenging the Democrats both electorally and with industrial muscle against the vicious austerity drive they have pushed through with nearly as much relish as Gingrich’s Republicans.