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US Labor Party: Has socialism a future in the USA?

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Against a background of steep decline in the trade unions in the United States, the formation and growth of the US Labor Party is a sign that militancy and class consciousness persist in the vanguard of the working class. Marco Zucci argues that if big business is to get a real fright then a major shake-up of the nature and direction of the fledgling party is needed

At the national convention of the Labor Party (USA), held in December 1998 in Pittsburgh, the slogan behind the podium was “Let’s hammer it out together!"

So far the programme and practice of the Labor Party (LP), founded in 1996, have not lived up to this roaring slogan. The party is actually a pretty weak hammer and has done little to help the working class take on its mighty capitalist enemy, the US ruling class.

The fact that the LP came into existence at all, in the midst of a major decline in working class organisation in the USA, and that it has survived as a reasonably lively organization (the convention was attended by over 1300 delegates) are positive aspects of the party’s brief history.

However, the LP has so far failed to prepare for two key and interrelated battles: the struggle against the bureaucracy leading the unions and the more general struggle to break away both the unions and whole sectors of the working class from their subordination to the bourgeois politics of the Democratic Party.

While this is no surprise, considering the the forces which dominate the LP, this central weakness could compromise and undermine the viability of the whole project of building a workers’ party in the USA.

The decline in the workers’ movement

Since the major set-backs of the late 1970s and early 1980s, culminating in the defeat of the air traffic controllers’ strike (1981) under the Reagan presidency, the workers’ movement has suffered nearly two decades of decline and retreats.

Under the blows of the US bosses’ attacks the working class has been seriously downsized in its historical strongholds. The manufacturing sector has been dramatically cut down and reshaped and now only employs a fraction of its previous workforce, especially in the historically large and militant sectors of the automobile and the mining industries. Millions of workers have been shifted from manufacturing into the service sector, where part-time working, bad conditions, low wages and the absence of unions are the norm.

While they are generally hidden in the glamorous government statistics boasting a powerful, booming economy, unemployment and underemployment have grown steadily to one quarter of the work force. Of this, only 4 % are officially accounted for; the unemployed who cannot claim benefits, the underemployed and those employed but below the poverty line, are ignored!

This enormous pool of “surplus” workers, and the weight of the accumulated defeats, has left the initiative in the hands of the bosses. Not only has there been a 15 % decline in the level of real wages over the last 25 years but other basic needs are also under attack.

Forty three million Americans have no health insurance at all, although the health industry is one of the most profitable in the country. Health plans are systematically revised, increasing the costs at the same time as reducing the entitlements.

This is lowering health standards for the whole working class. The political agenda is dominated by either the attacks on the remaining benefits, like the Social Security system, or by new proposed tax cuts, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

For the first time in American history, the children of the working class are facing an uncertain future of part-time, poorly paid jobs and sub-standard living conditions, significantly lower than those of their parents.

This material decline is reflected in the continued erosion of working class organisation, now at an historical low of 14.5 % union density, and the number of strikes, 29 in 1997 as against 222 in 1960. This sharp decline in the strength and consciousness of the working class has left the union bureaucracy floundering. Indeed, one of the most visible indicators of the crisis of their leadership is the speed with which most of them are running for cover - straight into the arms of the bosses themselves. This “strategy” generally takes one of three forms:

· continuing and renewing their ties with the Democrats, because there is “no other place to go". In the last presidential elections, the unions spent more than $35 million to get a Democrat re-elected and this is likely to happen again in 2000;

· taking the business unions solution, that is, promoting a unionism completely tied to the bosses and defending their profits as the “base of the union". All kinds of new contracts which are to the advantage of the bosses have been agreed by the bureaucrats along this line, particularly in the car industry;

· playing the Republican card against the Democrats. Already large amounts of union money are channelled to Republicans who play the role of “friends of Labor", despite the obvious dead end that this move represents.

There are some bureaucrats who follow a different line. They recognise the need to rebuild the unions from below, using tactics, including mass mobilisations and strikes that have led to serious conflicts with the bosses and their allies. Two events in the 1990s graphically illustrate their impact: the election of Ron Carey to the head of the Teamsters in 1991, and the UPS strike in 1997.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is one of most powerful US unions, with over one million members. For several decades, however, it was best known for being completely controlled by a bureaucracy closely intertwined with “the mob", the mafia.

The lifestyle of these top bureaucrats was in itself an insult to the workers. The union owned a fancy jet for their trips, conventions were held in holiday resorts like Miami or Las Vegas and more than one hundred bureaucrats were paid in excess of $100,000.

In 1991, after a strong campaign by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a reforming opposition with important roots among sections of the rank and file, the government stepped in and organised the first elections for the top positions in the union.

To the surprise of many, it was not an old guard bureaucrat but Ron Carey, president of a New York UPS local (branch) who won. This led to a process of limited reform in the union, stopping the most blatant cases of bureaucratic control and the abuse of the funds.

The new leadership was also central in the successful UPS strike of the summer 1997, when UPS workers took on a powerful company, resisted all attempts to break the strike through scabbing and finally won a significant victory.

The key to this success was the new leadership’s mobilisation of the rank and file in the strike, where they ran strong and determined pickets. Above all, what the strike underlined was the potential combativity of union members when rallied behind a leadership that had shown that it was prepared to fight, at least over immediate issues.

However, this success revealed the weakness of the whole Carey period - the weakness of a bureaucrat prepared to use the rank and file against the “old guard” union leaders and, in certain circumstances, the bosses, but not prepared to subordinate his leadership to the rank and file and to real workers’ democracy that alone could free the union from the state.

Government control of the union’s affairs, which had opened the way to Carey’s election, now provided the means to get rid of him.

He was accused of involvement in shady deals with the Democratic Party in which members’ subscriptions had been diverted in exchange for support for Carey. Three of his “political consultants” pleaded guilty and this resulted in a rerun of the union elections.

In the end, James Hoffa Jr, son of the one of the most famous mob-connected Teamster leaders, was elected. This ended the reform season and led to many contracts being signed, which seriously worsened workers’ conditions, without any real struggle.

The Labor Party

It was out of this reforming layer of the middle bureaucracy of the Teamsters and others unions, a layer not entirely corrupted or completely cut off from the rank and file, that the Labor Party originated.

For decades, tiny groups of leftists and union militants kept alive the slogan of a workers’ party in the USA to represent and defend the interests of the workers against the bosses. Historically, the lack of such a party has been a sign of the weakness of the workers’ political. Revolutionaries have been right - historically and today - to raise the slogan of a workers’ party in the US as a means of fighting for the political independence of the working class.

At the beginning of the 1990s, a group of unionists led by Tony Mazzocchi, national secretary of OCAW (Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers), launched a campaign to build what they saw as a preliminary organisational basis for a workers’ party.

They deliberately kept the political content to a minimum, calling only for support from the unions for a party that would be independent of the two main parties. They even went so far as to avoid taking political positions on current workers’ struggles, leaving all such questions for the future party to resolve.

After some initial successes in building the “Labor Party Advocates” (LPA), by 1994, the project was stagnating. In fact, the leadership’s goal of 500,000 members (for an annual fee of $20) was too high and risked delaying the actual launching of the new party forever.

A change of approach was needed to attract new layers of activists and workers: in 1994, chapters in a number of cities and states were recognized by the LPA leadership. In June 1996, the decision was taken to found the party at a national convention in Cleveland, Ohio, attended by 1367 delegates from 46 states.

The delegates represented 36 chapters and the newly born party could boast the endorsement of a wide range of modest-sized, but not unimportant, unions: OCAW (80,000 members) being the main support and contributing over 200 delegates,

The Western Longshoremen’s Union, the United Electrical Workers, the rail-workers (Brotherhood of the Maintenance of the Way Employees), the United Electrical Workers (30,000) and the Californian Nurses’ Association (28,000). The United Mine Workers (40,000) joined later in 1997.

The membership basis of these unions surpassed the million mark while LP individual membership was over 100,000. Moreover, the new project attracted the sympathy and the energies of more than 180 individual locals (the base organisations of the unions in the workplace) and many unorganized activists.

The Labor Party Programme

At the founding convention, discussion centred on the adoption of the programme, “A Call for Economic Justice", a set of demands which is intended to meet the needs of the working class.

As with many reformist programmes of this kind, many of its individual demands are not only supportable but necessary. However, the whole perspective of the working class taking power to put into practice those demands is completely absent from the programme. While the words, “struggle” and “fight” are used frequently, no concrete examples are given of how to struggle and to what end.

The whole programme fails to identify the role of the party in the struggles of the working class and, more generally, in American political life. This reflects the compromise upon which this party has been founded, as we will see later.

The tone and content of the programme reveal a lot about the moderate ideology shared by the union bureaucracy in the leadership of the LP and by the union leaders and members they are targeting for recruitment.

For instance, far from denouncing the arch-reactionary role of the USA in the world, as the most powerful and greedy imperialist country, the programme simply presents its supporters as “keepers of the American dream of opportunity, fairness and justice". This short sighted position on international issues is even more explicit in the LP “Fair Trade Campaign” against “trade policies, treaties and treaty organizations like NAFTA, GATT and the World Trade Organization (WTO)".

While a resolution on this issue recognises that “our fight is against multinational corporations, not our brothers and sisters in other countries", it then proposes to the workers the fairy tale of a “new fair trade policy” calling for the application of the ILO conventions whose central point is the following:

"No goods should enter this country unless the conditions of labour producing those goods adhere to ILO conventions. For example, no product should be allowed into the country that is made from child labour. In addition, no product should be accepted into the country that comes from countries or factories, in which workers do not have the real right to organise or where those that do are intimidated, threatened or coerced."

While the resolution calls for new rules for working people to become directly involved in the enforcement of this policy, it leaves the question of the nature of these new rules (who should adopt them? how should workers organise to enforce this ban?) wide open.

But, above all, in defending this rejection of international treaties, the arguments put forward by the LP go a long way toward justifying the idea that millions of jobs have been destroyed in the USA because of these treaties. This reinforces the dangerous ideology of a nationalist perspective for assuring a high standard of living to the American working class.

It panders to the right wing union leaders’ constant calls to “put America first". It ignores the fact that job destruction began before these treaties and will continue regardless of them. It lets the US bosses off the hook for the devastation they are responsible for.

This is particularly evident in the LP press. For instance, the March 1999 issue reports on the actions of steelworkers who are demanding that Clinton stops the import of steel:

"Several thousand Ohio valley steelworkers marched to Bill Clinton’s doorstep on January 20, angry at the administration failure to staunch the flood of cheap steel imports that have caused thousands of steelworkers to be laid off in recent months."

The rest of the article does nothing to argue for a class struggle, internationalist alternative to the “ban imports” lobby and suggests only that the LP would be more ready to enforce this kind of “national” workers’ demand.

The role of the US government in defending, or even putting in power, the very same dictators who violate human and union rights is never denounced.

There is no mention of the millions of jobs that are destroyed in other countries, particularly in the semi-colonies, through the application of the neo-liberal policies of the IMF and the World Bank, or to the systematic plundering of the natural resources of the same countries.

This line of argument is merely a slight shift to the left from the AFL-CIO mainstream positions :

"In the longer term, we need a new internationalism - a rewriting of the rules of the global economy to make it work for working people. This will require bold new ideas, new initiatives and new institutions. Controls must be devised to limit capital speculation; to make currencies more, not less, stable; to make corporations more, not less, accountable. Global arrangements for trade and investment must leave nations free to follow different paths to prosperity.” (from The Global Economy : the need to act; J. J. Sweeney. 13-03-1999)

The same conscious strategy, of adopting timid positions so as not to shock the TU bureaucracy who the party is wooing, can be seen in the LP’s discussion on women’s right to abortion.

While the Californian Nurse Association called for free access to abortion to be included in the party programme, rather than the vague “unimpeded access to a full range of family planning and reproductive services for men and women” of the proposed document, this was defeated by the convention.

Valdemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, explained candidly that he and his organization believed that life began at conception. “The right to continue or terminate a pregnancy” was not included in the programme until 1998.

This certainly shows that a lot of patient discussions are needed to break away some sections of workers from such reactionary ideas, but it should not be used as an excuse for adopting fudged positions, especially in conditions where the struggle over abortion rights is such a major issue of political conflict with the forces of the influential religious right.

On international trade and on women’s rights the LP has shown itself to be hidebound by the prejudices and political cowardice that have bedevilled the US labour movement for decades.

Historically - with only partial exceptions - the unions have based themselves on a white, male labour aristocracy and have tailored their policies accordingly.

For a party that claims to represent the working class and its historic interests to do the same is a bad omen for the fate of the party. It is a strong hint that, like the bureaucrats it woos, the party leadership will be content to tread the reformist path, limiting class independence to an organisational break with the traditional bosses’ parties but not a political break with US capital.

The Labor Party and the unions: a rotten compromise

What all this reveals is that the foundation of the LP was a rotten compromise between the top union bureaucrats and the leadership of the LP. One the one hand, the bureaucrats agreed not to attack the LP, either directly or through the state apparatus, and even helped it survive with a little money and support. On the other, the LP agreed not to challenge the union bureaucracy either inside the unions, by organising a rank and file struggle for democratisation, or in the general class struggle by challenging the positions or the actions of the union leaders.

Crucially, they did not attack the top bureaucracy for giving enormous sums of money and support to the Democrats: to the point that most LP endorsing unions still maintain their traditional “Political Action Committee", mainly for lobbying Democrats. Alongside this, the LP has not stood candidates for elections, which would have forced the union leaders to make a clear choice between Democrats and Labor.

The reasoning behind this “non-aggression pact “ is that the top bureaucracy believe they can use the LP to pressurise the Democrats, winning small concessions by threatening to increase their support for Labor.

The rationale of the LP leadership is similar: they see the LP as a long term project aimed at creating a reformist party on the model of the British Labour Party, with many years of patient work to gain support from the rank and file and to gently convince the top bureaucrats that the LP could do a better job for them than the Democrats.

This was summed up by Bob Wages of the OCAW at the end of the last convention:

"If we remain non-electoral for the near future, and have discussions that leave room for fusion candidates, running both on our line and that of the Democrats, I think other unions will be interested."

This strategy is pure illusion. The combination of parliamentary centred politics, a reformist programme and a rear-guard oriented ideology, cannot but generate a climate of passivity, discouraging workers from turning to the LP in significant numbers rather than inspiring them to join in a new political project.

The decision not to stand independent Labor candidates, wasted important opportunities to build the party and to raise its visibility both locally and nationally. Similarly, the decision not to defend an independent point of view against the union leadership, and more generally in the class struggle, deliberately restricted the LP press to the realm of political abstraction.

The dangers of this were revealed in the party’s response to the UPS strike, which began just a few months after the its foundation and grabbed the attention of masses of workers, not only in the USA but all around the world.

What did the party press say? Close to nothing. Its November 1997 issue simply commented on the anti-union Taft Hartley laws which, since 1948, have restricted the rights of workers to organise and respond with immediate strike action to the bosses’ attacks.

While there is every reason to mount a campaign against the anti unions laws in the USA, there were many other lessons to be learned from the UPS strike, above all the fact that well organised and determined workers can win.

The LP decided to remain silent on the question. This is a graphic example of the classic reformist position which separates economics from politics, union work from party work.

In general, this always weakens class consciousness and helps to prop up the capitalist system, but in the case of the LP in its infancy it is even more of a problem, because its political activity is itself very weak. The adoption of this course was clearly leading the LP nowhere.

Going nowhere?

Since its founding convention, the LP has, effectively, stagnated. While a few more unions endorsed it, there was no breakthrough and the bigger, more powerful unions like the Teamsters’ or United Auto Workers, did not show any interest in it. The AFL-CIO bosses are already geared up to support Gore for president next year and see the LP, at best, as a nuisance.

At the same time, the leadership based their project to build the party on a propaganda campaign for the “Twenty-Eighth Amendment to the Constitution". This would enshrine a right, “guaranteeing everyone a job at a living wage". The thinking behind this is that such an amendment would, “force Congress to find ways to implement it."

This kind of campaign, based upon collecting signatures and putting some pressure on local congress members, was certainly not a great propaganda weapon for the LP but it reflects the bureaucracy’s conception of political activity.

Indeed, the bi-monthly LP press, while ignoring most of what happens both in the class struggle and in the unions, regularly features reports from the “Capitol Hill shop steward", a union Political Action professional, which covers parliamentary and government affairs.

The whole attitude of the leaders of the LP towards the local organisations, the chapters, has been very defensive. At the conventions they only allow one vote per chapter - unions have bloc votes. In some cases, the LP leadership has appointed union bureaucrats to chapter leaderships against the will of the rank and file.

Finally, at the 1998 convention, new internal rules were adopted that require at least 250 members for one chapter. Even the most lively chapter, New York, would not be recognized on this basis! It is no surprise that from the 30 or more chapters originally set up 1994, the number is now down to less than 10. This points to the need for a battle inside the LP for democratic control of the party by the rank and file.

Despite its relative weakness, the 1998 convention had 1400 delegates. A decision was finally taken to run candidates in elections, although the number of checks and the restrictive criteria of the resolution adopted on this are such that the leadership can live in peace for the next few years.

The date proposed for the next convention was 2003! The leadership clearly does not see any urgency in building the LP and is content to leave it in semi-lethargy, as a tool for their use but clearly not as a tool for the daily struggle of the working class.

What can be done?

The LP today is a long way from offering a vibrant new class struggle approach to politics in the USA. That is why it is not attracting the scores of union activists and unorganised workers that it should. Its very survival in the coming years is far from certain.

However, sectarianism towards the project - and the US left is, as a result of its years of isolation from the working class deeply scarred by sectarianism - would be a mistake.

For the first time in many years a forum, involving several trade unions and a national network of members, formally committed to an independent union based party has been set up. Militants should intervene in this forum fighting for their ideas and perspectives.

This fight should combine a thorough critique of the leadership’s mild reformism and of its bureaucratic approach to party building, and offer a new perspective based on an action programme for the North American workers.

The future of the LP is not yet finally set. The course taken by the leadership is clearly leading down a dead end reformist path. No large union has been convinced to endorse it and activity on the ground is declining, as testified by the dwindling number of chapters.

The proposed mix of a national propaganda campaign and abstention from an active intervention in the class struggle has already shown its inadequacy as a way of mobilising the workers.

However, if the next recession in the US economy is deep one it willprofoundly alter the situation, shaking the whole foundation of the workers’ movement and giving a mighty boost to the class struggle.

The rise of the mass workers’ strikes in the 1930s, as the class recovered from the heavy blows of a terrible recession, is a powerful example of what can happen in the coming years.

Then, the working class forged new organisations, the CIO, which came closer than ever before to breaking the unions from the bosses’ parties as well as leading to the significant growth of the then revolutionary Trotskyist party, the SWP (US).

It was thanks to the influence of Stalinism on the workers’ movement – which at the time opposed the creation of a Labor Party and favoured political support for the Democrats as part of the popular front – together with the eventual rapprochement between the bureaucrats of the AFL and those of the CIO, that blocked the move towards the creation of a real workers’ party.

It is the task of revolutionaries today to renew the fight against the same treacherous leadership and to fight to take the Labor Party out of the hands of its present leadership, turn it into a real challenge to the bosses’ order by rallying millions of workers to its banner and win it to a revolutionary programme for the destruction of US capitalism.