The Labor Party: Work in Progress

"They say a small group of people can't change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." --Margaret MeadA minimum wage of $10 an hour. Free education for everyone. Universal access to health care.If this sounds like utopia, so did women gaining the right to vote before the suffragettes, and black people securing the right to desegregated education before the civil rights movement. It's as utopian as a worker's right to strike, a forty-hour work week, social security, unemployment, worker's comp, child labor laws, collective bargaining agreements and employer-paid health insurance before the labor movement.If it is utopian to think that a Labor Party can form the backbone of a mass movement that changes the entire social, political and economic landscape of a country, then Lech Walesa and the unionists that formed the massive Solidarity movement in Communist Poland are utopian. And so are the people that make up Labor Party Advocates.Fifteen hundred delegates for Labor Party Advocates representing a million people from 46 states gathered last weekend in Cleveland at the founding convention of the Labor Party. Five years ago, most people would've said that was pretty pie-in-sky, too.True visionaries are quite often the most practical of people."Those of us that have been contending with large corporate entities know that it's about power," says Tony Mazzocchi, the 70-year-old grandfather of Labor Party Advocates. "You don't confront massive power with rhetoric. You gotta build a fighting organization."Five years ago Mazzocchi set out to do just that. Though he says he's been envisioning a Labor Party for the better part of fifty years, it came to fruition in 1991 when he -- as the assistant to the president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW) -- and a small group of unionists passed a resolution that laid the foundation for a Labor Party. Since that time, he's crisscrossed the country organizing rank-and-file union members around the notion that "the bosses have two parties, we should have at least one." The result is six internationals and a myriad of local unions endorsing the idea of forming a Labor Party."We have to change basic assumptions that people possess about how things work," says Mazzocchi. "They understand how things don't work. They understand they're being subjugated in a process that is moving enormous wealth from the pockets of ordinary people to the pockets of a few."The purpose of the party is to define an agenda that is a vision of what a society should be like and how we achieve that. What is society? Society is to advance the interests of all the people, not just the rich. Today, everything is framed in terms of corporate assumptions."Mazzocchi cites the budget deficit -- considered the top national issue by a mere five percent of the population, even at the peak of hysteria over it last winter -- as an example of how corporate interests have taken absolute precedent. "The debt and deficit is of no consequence to the average person. I lived during a time when the deficit was four times worse than it is now. The debt exceeded the GNP [Gross National Product] -- it was 125 percent of GNP after World War II. The corporate sector has changed the vision of society, and both parties reflect that.""When we started this effort," says Bob Wages, the appropriately named president of OCAW, "it started very much as a grass-roots discussion about what was wrong with the political system, how workers are treated in the system, how employers are gaining more and more power, how -- over the last twenty years -- the rich have gotten immeasurably richer and the poor poorer, how many people have become disenfranchised, and how many people have literally dropped out of the political process because of it."If this sounds like inflammatory rhetoric, consider the results of the latest Harris polls. Eighty-two percent of people surveyed think the government works for the few and not the majority of people. More than 80 percent think the economy is "inherently unfair." Seventy percent say that business has gained too much power over too many aspects of public life. And a startling 95 percent say corporations should sacrifice profit for the benefit of workers and communities. You'd have to ask people if they believe in gravity to get as high a poll number as that.If the total domination of our society by corporations is the cause for the Revolutionary War, then Democrats are the Benedict Arnolds. Some delegates at the convention say their disaffection began when a Democratic president led the Democratically-dominated House and Senate to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- which many economists believe will have an adverse effect on nearly 70 percent of the workforce. Others say Democrats sold working people down the river decades ago. Though the points of reference may be different, their disaffection -- not just with the Democrats but with two-party politics -- is nearly unanimous."I grew up in a Democratic family," says Owen Haynes, a soft-spoken president of a New Jersey chapter of OCAW who works in a water treatment plant. "The Democratic party that my parents belonged to is no longer there and hasn't been there for decades."Don Webb, president of the Postal Workers Union of Washington state, is a Democratic precinct officer. This jovial man is one of the few delegates that has anything nice to say about Democrats. "We feel it's important to keep our options open after what the Democratic Party -- who has generally been our friend overall -- did with NAFTA. They haven't been very friendly over the last couple of years. This," he motions to the convention floor packed with people of all shapes, colors and sizes, "might help get their attention."If they haven't yet gotten the attention of Democrats nationwide, they got the attention of one Democrat in the convention's host city, Cleveland. The morning's paper on the second day of the convention carried an above-the-fold, front-page headline saying that Mayor Mike "White wants collective bargaining law blunted." Though it should have come as no surprise to Clevelanders, the Democratic mayor -- who has been profiled in The Wall Street Journal for his pro-business leadership -- wrote a letter to the Republican-dominated state senate calling government workers' right to unionize "obstructionist," a law that's been on the books for 13 years. He said the state should change the rights of city employees to collectively bargain because it is a "tool of unions" that has caused the "emasculation of meaningful management rights.""Just to drive home the point of why we are here," shouted Bob Wages to the 1000-plus crowd of Labor Party Advocates blocking traffic in front of City Hall that afternoon, an event that garnered another front page story in the daily paper, "the mayor of Cleveland wants to stick it to the workers. He got elected on the backs of labor, then pissed all over your leg. It's a classic case of politics as usual."Consumer advocate Ralph Nader -- in town for the day to observe and offer support to the Labor Party convention -- spoke to TV cameras and print journalists after the largest demonstration Cleveland has seen in a long time. "The mayor has condoned and encouraged enormous property tax abatements for these big corporations so that these companies are not paying their fair share for the school budget and city services while the rest of Cleveland has to pay. I want to see Mayor White stand up to the corporate bullies and make them pay into the city budget before he takes it out of the hide of the workers."When asked what the mayor's letter says about Democrats, Nader responded, "Corporate power turns all mayors, with few exceptions, into political hermaphrodites."Though the main issues dominating the Labor Party's platform are economic ones -- a guaranteed job at a living wage, ending corporate welfare, a more progressive tax code -- social justice issues ("End bigotry: an injury to one is an injury to all") and environmental issues ("We reject the false choice of jobs or the environment") have gotten enough of a nod to appease most supporters without alienating others. (And to its credit, Labor Party Advocates is a pretty diverse crowd.) Agreement on the need for universal health care, however, is nearly as unanimous as a worker's right to strike."We went through ... a discussion on health care reform," says Bob Wages. "And people say it failed. I would submit to you it didn't fail at all. There's bona fide health care reform. It's called for-profit health care. The health care system hasn't broken down because of the sheer weight of it. It's been torn apart by the HMO system and the Richard Scotts of the world," says Wages, referring to the CEO of Columbia/HCA, which has gained national notoriety for voraciously buying up nonprofit hospitals, and most recently for going after the nonprofit health insurer Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Ohio.Rose Ann DeMoro and Kitt Costello -- both with the California Nurses Association, one of the most supportive unions of Labor Party Advocates -- interview like it's a game of tag-team."What we see is the human wreckage of the corporate takeover of health care in America," says DeMoro. "Unless we are able to mobilize to offset that, the deterioration is going to continue.""Our position is that managed care is simply a new way to extract profit, because the only way to make money in managed care is to ration care and deny care," says Costello. "We have a program called Patient Watch that is dedicated to codifying real human examples of how these processes deny care.""We've documented cases where staff has been cut back so much that people had to call 911 from their hospital beds," says DeMoro."It's the same corporatization model of downsizing except now it's moving into the health care system," says Costello. "One party wants to dismantle the social safety net, the other wants to just minimize the damage.""That's why we got involved [with LPA]," says DeMoro. "It's just one aspect of the American political, economic and social system that needs to be reclaimed."That reclaiming of the social, political and economic system is a formidable task not lost on Labor Party supporters. How to reclaim it is another matter."The electoral element is the least important," says Mazzocchi when asked if the Labor Party will run candidates, or even endorse candidates in the immediate future. "There's never been a time when elected officials have ever led with legislation. Labor laws came from workers sitting in factories and disrupting the system, not politicians passing legislation. The right wing, after Goldwater got defeated in '64, gave up on the electoral process. They went back and did what we're trying to do now -- build a movement that reshapes the national consciousness. It's a difficult road -- and it took them took twenty years -- but it's the only road."The right-wing analogy is an apt one. The success of their movement depended on reaching people in an already organized place -- churches -- and tapping existing resources. The biggest obstacle for other progressive parties -- the New Party, the Green Party -- has been their utter lack of an existing vehicle to build on. Unions and their ability to raise funds -- however demoralized and demonized over the passed thirty years -- make labor the most promising place to form a movement."In ten years, I would hope that a people's party will have grown and matured to the point that even if the Republicans and Democrats are still dominating the political process, they'll have had to move closer to us," says Eddie Kornegay, an African-American president of a Teamsters local in Washington, D.C. "Right now, they don't have to deal with working people's issues because there's no people's movement. I really don't care if we run candidates."Wouldn't he be concerned that once the pressure is off, the two-party system will go right back to business as usual? "If that happens, we haven't done our job, which is building and keeping a grass-roots movement that is well organized and powerful. We have to set the agenda, then look for candidates to represent that agenda. It won't matter if they're Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Labor Party candidates, whatever.""I don't think it's possible [to run candidates] given the current structure of the media, the electoral system and the kind of money that's involved," says Mark Dudzic, a delegate from OCAW. "It would be a self-defeating strategy."The model I see," continues Dudzic, "is sort of like the Civil Rights movement. It was clear that the political system was so corrupt in the South, there was no way you could make any changes politically. So they moved to the streets in highly visible ways of confronting that power to change it. Over the years, there was a more developed electoral strategy based on the power that people had developed as a social movement."But disagreement on this issue of whether or not to immediately run candidates erupted into the most heated debate on the convention floor. "Trying to move the Democrats to the left is like trying to move Lake Erie," argued one delegated."If we don't run candidates," said another, "we'll look like we're just trying to influence the Democrats."When Bob Wages forced a vote on the issue before it had been fully aired, one union threatened to walk out. The disagreement was eventually resolved in favor of not running candidates for at least two years, but the debate demonstrated the fragility of such a neophyte organization.The success of the Labor Party depends largely upon their ability to first solidify support among many more unions. (John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO -- who was coincidentally invited to speak at the City Club during the convention -- declined an invitation to join the event.) And then to communicate that message to non-unionized and to mainstream, middle class workers."The presumption is that we're not mainstream," says Wages, who lets out a disapproving snort. "I come from a pretty conservative union. We're not left-wing zealots. The Ds and Rs," as Wages refers to Democrats and Republicans, "wouldn't know mainstream if it bit 'em." The most mainstream guy at the convention, the Democratic Party precinct officer, was also quick to say, "I don't think this is a bunch of radicals here. There is some fringe element, but there's that in the Democratic and Republican parties too."Other Labor Party Advocates point to Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and the resurgence of third party activity as proof that their message can resonate beyond unionized workers and the so-called fringe element. "I disagree with him [Buchanan] on a lot of issues, but what he was saying about corporations was right on time," said one laid off worker who lost her job recently with the shutdown of an oil refinery in Pennsylvania. "It's what we've been saying all along," says another LPA delegate. "If we don't develop a response to the economic crisis that most Americans are feeling, a demagogue is going to take the stage.""People now have somewhere to go," says another. "And it's not Ross Perot." Whether or not the convention was an historic event -- as Labor Party Advocates claim -- remains to be seen. As Tony Mazzocchi says, there won't be any thunder and lightning tomorrow.Adolph Reed o political science professor at Northwestern University, and columnist for The Progressive and the Village Voice who is also on the executive committee of LPA o says an event's significance is "not something you can know in advance. To proclaim its historic importance is to look at it as more of a still photograph than a work in progress. This is definitely something that has the potential to have an impact on subsequent history in American politics. But it's going to be what we make it."Elizabeth Chamberlain is the news editor of the Free Times.

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