Some Lessons from the Labor Party Experience of the 1990s

By Alan Benjamin (September 2005)

The Labor Party that was founded in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1996 is hanging by a thin thread. It exists in name only with a tiny apparatus. The LP’s collapse can be attributed in part to the LP leadership’s refusal to stake out a genuinely independent course against the Democrats and Republicans, something that required jumping into the electoral arena. We should recall that in 1998, at the second LP convention in Pittsburgh, Ralph Nader appealed to the LP to run LP candidates on a local and state level. He offered to assist the LP in the process, stating that he was not a Green — but a Labor Party member at heart.

But Tony Mazzocchi and the LP leadership refused to heed Nader’s words. They refused to begin running their own LP candidates. (Nader’s turn toward the Greens was a result of this default by the LP.) They did not want to press the unions that had endorsed the Labor Party to take further steps — one at a time, carefully — on the road to a clean break with the twin parties of the bosses. This pushed away the activist base of the LP and ultimately, it also pushed away many of the unions and locals that were willing and ready to move electorally against the Republicrats.

But the biggest reason for the LP’s stagnation, then regression, is to be found in the broader labor movement. Even a more solid initial effort to launch the LP, with model election campaigns in various cities and stronger chapters, would have been confronted with the immense and renewed pressures of “lesser evilism” that swept the entire labor movement following George W. Bush’s “selection” (because the election was, in fact, stolen) in 2000. Now it was the time, we were told, to “Dump Bush” — meaning to elect “lesser evil” Democrats. Most of the national unions that had launched the LP abandoned ship, beginning with the union that was at the heart of the LP project from Day One: the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union.

The debacle of the 2004 Democratic Party bid — combined with the generalized crisis of direction of the entire labor movement (which includes as one its silver linings a new and wide-open discussion about the failure of the Democratic Party to defend or advance workers’ interests) — have opened a new political situation in this country that is ripe for our Labor Party message — particularly for our proposed campaign for running independent labor-community slates in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

For the first time since LPA was launched in 1991, for example, the South Carolina Labor Party, with the support of LP national organizer Mark Dudzic, is proposing to run a serious electoral campaign for the State Assembly in South Carolina in 2006 — a campaign rooted in the militant ILA Local in Charleston and supported by the South Carolina state AFL-CIO. This is a step forward for the Labor Party.

We should also note this is not a fusion candidacy — meaning it is not a candidacy that would run both on a Labor Party ticket and on the ticket of another party. Electoral laws in many states allow such “fusion” electoral campaigns. The Communist Party, for example, has been notorious over the years for promoting “fusion” tickets, with candidates running both as Democrats and as American Labor Party members (late 1930s) or as “Progressive Party” members ( 1960s). Today, the best-known example of a party that promotes “fusion” is the Working Families Party in New York.

While it presents itself as a party much like a Labor Party, the Working Families Party is nothing of the sort. Running inside the Democratic Party, it is simply a revamped expression of the tired and failed “inside-outside” strategy in relation to the Democrats. This does not mean that the unionists and activists who are attracted to the Working Families Party because they are looking for something different cannot be won over to the Labor Party. They definitely can. But that requires building a Labor Party that runs its own independent candidates, that conducts itself as a real Labor Party.

The existing Labor Party founded in Cleveland in 1996 didn’t get everything wrong when it adopted an electoral policy in 1998 (a policy, alas, which has remained on paper till this day). One of the strengths of Tony Mazzocchi is that he insisted that all LP candidates had to have a real base in the unions and that they must reject all fusion campaigns. He understood there would be immense pressures on the Labor Party, when it began to run its own candidates, to run on “fusion” tickets or otherwise have the LP candidates come out in support of Democrats on a national level.

There already has been pressure on the probable LP candidate in South Carolina to run on the Democratic Party ticket or on a “fusion” platform. In a recent letter to Alan B., LP national organizer Mark Dudzic writes the following:

“It would, of course, be possible for our candidate to run as an independent or on another party line. As many people are urging him to do, he also could run in the Democratic primary. But then, of course, we wouldn’t have established the LP as a statewide electoral party. At best, we would have a pro-worker campaign by an LP member running on another party line. Nothing to sneeze at, especially in a state like South Carolina, but certainly not quite on a par with the LP rising to its historic mission and building a real party structure in the heart of the right-to-work South.

“Our possible candidate has, up to now, resisted pressure to run as anything other than a LP candidate. I am deeply respectful of his principled stance in the face of a whole lot of outside pressure from friends and foes alike.”

Resisting this pressure is the hallmark of a genuine LP effort. This is critical not only from the standpoint of promoting a clean break with the Republicrats, it is a guarantee that the candidacy itself will be placed at the service of working people and their struggles. The Labor Party has adopted a very progressive program — with a call for single-payer healthcare, the repeal of Taft-Hartley, free higher education, a major slash in the war budget so that funds can be directed toward meeting human needs, etc. The only way LP candidates can be held accountable both to the LP program and to the Labor Party as a whole is to run strictly on the LP platform. Accountability is at the heart of an independent labor movement.

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