Labor's Next Generation
Forget about the Soccer Mom, that mythic minivan-driving, coupon-clipping voter whose charge was to distinguish between two political parties that are increasingly indistinguishable.Soccer Mom may have been the media-anointed swing vote of the '96 election, but the real story was the Disaffected Voter, the angry, alienated and just plain pissed-off citizen who'd had it with so-called choices that offered very little choice at all. As Clinton, Dole and their respective disciples jostled for the same spot, several steps right of the political center -- morphing into what social satirist and film-maker Michael Moore dubbed the "Republicrats" -- Disaffected Voter had just about had it with his limited options."Everyone is talking about third parties," said Rob Weir, a labor historian and professor at UMass-Amherst and Bay Path College. "I'd be happy for a second one."Disaffected Voter, of course, didn't get quite the same coverage as Soccer Mom, and certainly not as much as he did during the '92 election season, when the phenomenon that was Ross Perot caught -- and in large part, bought -- the media's fancy. This time around, however, Perot was less of a novelty and more of an unquestionable nut, and it became increasingly obvious that much of what had made him attractive to his followers was the simple fact that he didn't belong to one of the two major parties.So the Disaffected Voters, for the most part, groused in relative obscurity, perhaps voting for Perot, perhaps turning to Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader, depending on their leanings. Many simply took a pass in '96. Others resigned themselves to the "lesser evil" option, voting for whichever of the two major candidates was less offensive to their personal tastes.But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and just outside the mainstream political scene a number of alternatives have steadily surfaced over the past few years. The newest on the scene is the Labor Party, formed last summer on the eve of the Republicrats' schmaltzy, colorless, carefully scripted party conventions. For four days in June, 1,400 union activists gathered in Cleveland to found the party and to express their discontent with the two major parties, both of which have shamelessly aligned themselves with big business and the wealthy over America's working people and poor."The bosses have two parties," as one Labor Party slogan puts it. "Now we have our own!"Almost nine months after its founding, the Labor Party has 47 chapters. Like the Greens and the New Party, the Labor Party tends to the left on social issues. But first and foremost, the party focuses on economic issues -- ensuring job security, protecting workers' rights and closing the widening income gap between the rich and the poor. And while the Labor Party curses both of the big parties for neglecting the working and middle classes, much of its contempt is directed at the Democrats, who have long been considered the party of labor but who in recent years have largely shifted their allegiance to big business.The Labor Party's aim, in its simplest terms, is to reclaim America's political agenda from corporate interests and return it to the working people. "We are the keepers of the American Dream of equality, opportunity and fairness," the Labor Party's constitution proclaims. "We make the country run, but we have little say in running the country."If its principles are clear, however, the party's future is anything but. History seems aligned against the Labor Party; American third parties have tended to dissolve or be subsumed by the major parties. While third parties have achieved some visibility and small-scale successes in the past few years, they are still marginal players at best in American politics. And the current crop is still too young to have demonstrated any staying power.The Labor Party also faces some particular challenges. It has yet to decide some basic strategies -- whether it will field its own candidates for office, for instance -- and that indecision has left some feeling the party lacks focus. In addition, with union membership at its lowest in years, it's unclear if a labor-based party can garner enough wide-spread support to have any significant effect on national politics.Whether the Labor Party survives as a political party or not, its birth is an important moment in the resurgence of America's labor movement. As "big labor" -- the mainstream movement represented by the AFL-CIO -- reasserted itself as a player in the American political scene during the last election, the more radical fringe represented by the Labor Party took it one step further, making it clear that the Democratic Party can no longer take the labor vote for granted.The Labor Party's founding convention produced a "Call for Economic Justice," a declaration of principle that made some fairly radical demands. At the top of the list -- and the focus of the Labor Party's first national campaign -- is a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every American the right to a job at a "living wage" of $10 an hour.The party's program calls for an end to "corporate welfare" in the form of tax breaks and subsidies to businesses, and for tax revisions that would shift more of the burden onto the wealthy. It also demands the rewriting of national labor laws, which the Labor Party says now favor businesses over workers. The "Call for Economic Justice" calls for increased funding for public education, as well as publicly funded, universal health care, and a 32-hour, four-day work week with flexible schedules and paid family leave.In addition, the Labor Party urges unity among those Americans who have traditionally been oppressed but who too often have failed to come together to attack their common problems. The party's program condemns racism, sexism and anti-immigrant prejudice and takes a stand against hate crimes, police brutality and sexual harassment.The party's convention was the culmination of a half-dozen years of planning and activism, and it was due in large part to Tony Mazzocchi, former president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International union. Prior to his Labor Party work, Mazzocchi was best known as perhaps the key player behind the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, a landmark achievement for the labor movement. In recent years, he founded the Labor Party Advocates, the forerunner of the Labor Party.Mazzocchi's OCAW and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (or UE) have been the two major national unions behind the Labor Party; the Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employees and the International Longshoremen and Warehouseman unions joined OCAW and UE as sponsors of the founding convention.Those unions have a strong history of progressive activism, but they are relatively small. And although the Labor Party has been endorsed by nine international unions and more than 1,000 union locals, it hasn't received an endorsement from the AFL-CIO, the 13.5-million-member national federation of unions that in many minds is synonymous with the American labor movement, or "big labor."Although the party's convention produced a clear statement of principles, it did not yield a clear political strategy. The party has not decided whether it will support its own candidates or become an advocacy group that presses other candidates to take up its causes, an issue that generated heated debate at the convention. Some delegates wanted to begin endorsing or fielding candidates in local races; a few wanted the Labor Party to go so far as to reject Democratic and Republican candidates outright as a signal of the new party's independence. But the majority of delegates voted to defer any decisions about electoral involvement until the party's next national convention, scheduled for 1998.That delay will help the Labor Party decide the matter from a position of strength, said David Cohen of UE Local 274 in Greenfield, a member of the Western Massachusetts Labor Party's steering committee. The Labor Party is still in its infancy, and right now, the main focus is on recruiting new members, identifying key issues and developing a strong grassroots base of support and activism. Entering the electoral arena takes a lot of time and a lot of money, and it must be done carefully, lest that grassroots focus be lost in the process, Cohen said.Although critics argue that a political party that doesn't field candidates can have little influence, Labor Party activists disagree. The party's ultimate goal is to build a social movement of working people who "have a political presence and political influence, regardless of what we do on election day," said Dean Robinson, who teaches politics at UMass-Amherst and serves on the Labor Party's steering committee with Cohen.Like the Christian Coalition on the other end of the political spectrum, the Labor Party hopes to become "a presence ... that has to be reckoned with," with a strong enough constituency to gain a public hearing of its concerns, whether the party sponsors candidates of its own or not, Robinson said.In fact, progressive third parties have been most influential when they have not followed the electoral route."Third parties have played an important role in American politics, but it's been a very particular role," Douglas Amy, a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College, pointed out. There have been more than 1,000 third parties since the United States was founded, and -- with the notable exception of the Republican Party, which was founded in the 1850s to provide an anti-slavery alternative to the Democrats and the Whigs -- all have been fairly short-lived, due largely to their lack of electoral success.The legacy of these third parties, however, lives on in the major parties, which over time have adopted many of the ideas -- from women's suffrage to child labor laws -- first put forth by fringe parties. Over time, these once-radical notions gained public support and then were adopted by shrewd major parties, eager to cash in on popular ideas, Amy noted.Although some third party activists might dislike the idea of the big parties co-opting their programs, the importance of that role shouldn't be underestimated, said Weir."You don't always have to win the whole enchilada to make real change," Weir said. In fact, forcing the major parties to adopt your priorities is a sign of strength, he pointed out. "There's a lot of mileage to be gained out of scaring the hell out of the people in power."The New Party, perhaps the most established and well-known progressive third party, has ventured into electoral politics, although slowly. Founded in 1992, the New Party is a coalition of labor unions and community groups that calls for a "democratic revolution" to return power to the people. With 9,000 members and chapters in 10 cities, the New Party advocates on behalf of workers, poor people and minorities.The New Party, unlike the Labor Party, has decided to field its own candidates. Although New Party candidates have won 125 elections nationwide, they have largely been for minor offices, such as school boards and town councils. The party's aim is to gain momentum and recognition and build on these smaller successes in coming years, according to Adam Glickman, director of communications at the New Party's national office in New York. In fact, some New Party candidates have succeeded on the next level, winning state-wide seats in Wisconsin, Arkansas and Maryland.Some observers say the Labor Party could suffer from its union-heavy focus. Nationally, union membership is lower than it has been in years. By some estimates, only about 15 percent of American workers belong to unions, compared to as many as 40 percent in the 1950s and 25 percent as recently as the early '70s. And although the Labor Party is open to non-union members, and organizers note that their program will benefit all American workers, the party is likely to be perceived as a one-issue movement -- an exclusive vehicle for organized workers.And even among its union members, the party could have a hard time reaching consensus on social issues. Hints of that problem were evident at the party's founding convention, when Catholic and other socially conservative delegates protested a request by nurses unions that the Labor Party constitution include a line supporting "safe and legal abortion." In the end, the delegates settled on a vague, wordy line in favor of "informed choice and unimpeded access to a full range of family-planning and reproductive services." Even if the Labor Party succeeds in reaching out beyond the union ranks, it's unlikely that it -- or the Greens, or the New Party -- could have a critical mass to become a political force to rival the Democrats and Republicans. And given their common ground and limited resources, it seems logical that these left-leaning third parties will some day merge into one party. Some point to the New Party, the most established of the three, as the structure into which the others will fold."The last thing the Left needs is a Chinese menu of third parties," Weir pointed out.The emergence of the Labor Party is only a piece of labor's re-emergence in American politics.It's been a long time since labor was a significant player on the political scene. The 1930s and early '40s are often considered a crucial moment for unions, when workers, shaken by the Depression, began to organize and to exert some political clout. After World War II, however, anti-Communist sentiment made some socialist-connected labor activists targets of government suppression.While labor's influence continued, so did the anti-labor efforts. In the 1950s the government and big business joined forces in an attack on unions -- the decade, Weir pointed out, that Bobby Kennedy made his name by going after Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, and even Hollywood movies like "On the Waterfront" painted unions as corrupt organizations.In the 1960s and '70s, a subdued labor cast its lot with the Democratic Party, whose focus on social programs made it a likely defender of working people. "For a while, that served," recalled Cohen, the Western Mass Labor Party leader. But when the Democrats sat by as the economy fell apart, many workers felt betrayed and abandoned, and begin looking for alternatives.Many of these dissidents were as dissatisfied with the labor movement as they were with the Democratic Party. Under its former president, Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO lapsed into dormancy, faithfully sending its contribution checks to the Democrats but doing little advocacy for their concerns, and demanding little accountability from the Democrats they helped elect, Cohen said. In the meantime, many began to view the AFL-CIO as disconnected from the rank and file, a bastion of pinstripe-suited bureaucrats with little awareness of the concerns of the average union member. Activism declined, and for many workers, their union became simply an insurance policy for the workplace.Things have changed radically for the AFL-CIO in the past couple of years, however, due in large part to the election of a new president, John Sweeney, in 1995. For one thing, Sweeney came from the lower-paid, socially diverse service workers union, not the upper echelon of the labor hierarchy. Sweeney set about getting more women and ethnic and racial minorities involved in the AFL-CIO.The new president also impressed many with his commitment to activism -- unlike some of his predecessors, Sweeney has joined striking workers on the picket line, even getting arrested at a demonstration at Yale University -- and his renewed commitment to organize more workers.Perhaps the most visible change, however, has been in big labor's approach to national politics. During last year's election, the AFL-CIO committed $35 million to undo the damage of the '94 "Republican revolution," choosing about 75 congressional races -- including those of Massachusetts Congressmen Peter Torkildsen and Peter Blute -- where they supported Democrats to unseat incumbent Republicans.Much of the money went into "voter education" campaigns, including ads blasting the GOP for attacking Medicaid and opposing an increase in the minimum wage. Although Republicans howled in protest, claiming the ads were misleading and persuading some TV stations to stop carrying them, the campaign was nonetheless effective. The Democrats won back many of the House seats lost in '94.But not all labor activists were fully behind the agenda. More radical members were appalled that the AFL-CIO endorsed Clinton so early in the race. After Ronald Reagan, who delivered a strong blow to the labor movement when he fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981, many view Clinton as the most anti-union president of the century. A supplicant to big business, Clinton supported NAFTA and GATT, two trade agreements labor activists say hurt American workers. He also dropped the ball on health care reform with a plan that favored the insurance companies but still wasn't passable. And he signed welfare reform legislation that forces aid recipients into "workfare' jobs, a move some fear will trigger a decline in wages and work conditions.Despite Clinton's record, Cohen believes the AFL-CIO did the right thing by focusing its efforts on keeping Bob Dole out of the White House and trying to undercut Republican control of the House. And Clinton's re-election, Cohen noted, allows the Labor Party a friendlier environment in which to develop. "It gives us four years under stable conditions to organize," he said. "Whereas if Dole was elected, we wouldn't be organizing a Labor Party -- we'd be fighting to maintain what we have."Still, Cohen made it clear that Clinton was no more than the "lesser evil" option, and that labor shouldn't have been too eager to throw its support behind a party that seems to take the labor vote for granted. While many Labor Party members were active in AFL-CIO campaign activities, the fledgling party did not endorse the Democrats.That defiant stance might prove to be the Labor Party's most effective weapon. The party's strength may lie in defining itself as the prick to the conscience of the revived American labor movement.The Labor Party's refusal to get onboard and back the Democrats frustrated many in the mainstream labor movement, who criticized the new party for holding its convention in the midst of the presidential race, a time when many wanted labor to show a more unified front.The AFL-CIO, however, has left it to individual member unions to decide whether to endorse the Labor Party, and many locals have. That's progress, in the eyes of Cohen, who said that, under Kirkland's leadership, the federation would have likely condemned the new party.AFL-CIO officials take pains to stress that they feel no hostility toward the Labor Party, and that in fact they share many common beliefs. The disagreement, they say, is practical, not theoretical."Conceptually, the Labor Party is very good. Everybody agrees we need people advocating for working people in Congress," said Rich Rogers, political director of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. "I'm not trying to throw cold water on these peoples' efforts."Still, Rogers said, the Labor Party's ideals are politically impractical. "We need to work with the cards that have been dealt to us," he said. More specifically, Rogers questioned the need for a Labor Party chapter in Western Massachusetts, where the local congressmen, John Olver and Richie Neal, are the darlings of the labor movement for their pro-worker voting records. "Where's the impetus? Where, pragmatically, would you find better [candidates]?" Rogers asked.Rogers predicted that the Labor Party, like all third parties, will have a hard time establishing itself as a political force. "Our concern here is we need to influence politics and turn things around quickly," he said. "We don't have 30 years to figure out how to work things out."In the meantime, the AFL-CIO is unlikely to abandon the Democratic Party -- especially not now, when the favors owed them for their hard work during the '96 election should begin to be paid back."Right now, the Democrat Party is in pretty good shape," said Rick Brown, president of the Pioneer Valley Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and a Democrat since he cast his first presidential vote for George McGovern in 1972. ÒI don't think it would be in our best interest to abandon our victories and cut out on our own."Still, the days of the AFL-CIO giving its unequivocal support to the Democrats are over, Brown said. While in the past, the AFL-CIO's support was mostly monetary, in '96, members were more active in pushing issues. And now that the elections are over, labor will keep tabs on the politicians it helped elect, to make sure they keep their promises, Brown said.His labor council, for example, has begun to ask local legislators to pass largely symbolic resolutions expressing support for organized labor and condemning anti-union activities. In March, the Springfield City Council will be the first body to vote on such a resolution.Labor Party supporters, meanwhile, say the Democrats have had more than enough time to prove their loyalty, and that the time has come to think about other options. Whether those options include Labor Party candidates remains to be seen, although most agree that without the support of the AFL-CIO, the Labor Party -- or any progressive third party, for that matter -- won't get very far."The New Party, certainly above anything else, is interested in getting the support of 'big labor,'" said Glickman of the New Party. "You can't build a progressive social democratic political organization in the United States without having the support of what is by far the largest organization of working people in the country."He doesn't expect to see big labor simply abandon the Democratic Party, Glickman said. "But we do think it makes sense for the AFL-CIO and its members to diversify their portfolio of political options and at least experiment with some independent politics."That experimentation could include adopting some Labor Party structures and programs into the mainstream labor movement. Some see the Labor Party eventually finding its role as a pressure group within the AFL-CIO or the Democratic Party."The Labor Party is certainly something that will throw the fear of God into the Democratic Party," Brown said. "Just the fact that they exist and are being talked about is something."In any case, most agree that the Democrats have been put on notice that they can no longer count on the unquestioning loyalty of America's workers."I think we've seen the end of labor writing blank checks to the Democratic Party," Glickman said. "Whether or not labor supports an independent political party, I think we've begun to see labor developing its own political agenda. ... I think that's good for labor, and good for progressive politics."