Party Hardly: Labor Gets It Together (Sort Of)

By Nichols, John | The Progressive, August 1996 | Go to article overview

Party Hardly: Labor Gets It Together (Sort Of)

Nichols, John, The Progressive

Off the sidewalks and into the streets! Let's show them what this Labor Party is all about!"

With that chant, 1,400 union members from across the country flexed a muscle that American political parties rarely use. In Cleveland to launch the Labor Party, the delegates left their convention duties to join a raucous protest against Democratic Mayor Michael White's proposal to gut Ohio's collective-bargaining law for public employees. Swelling into the streets outside City Hall, the delegates marched impromptu to the Marriott Hotel where White was meeting with aides.

"We never thought, just as we arrived here in Cleveland to talk about forming a Labor Party, that the Democratic mayor of Cleveland would be the proof of everything we're talking about," said Bob Wages, the president of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. "Here's a man elected with the blood, sweat, and tears of the labor movement, and now he's pissing down your leg. Brothers and Sisters, this has got to change!"

"This is what makes us different. This is what distinguishes us from the Democratic Party and all its compromises," said Jerome Joffe, a St. John's University instructor, who watched the crowd of union activists stream into the Marriott lobby chanting, "Labor Party Now!"

At that moment, on the second day of the convention that dropped the "A" from LPA and turned Labor Party Advocates into the Labor Party, it seemed as if the organization had found the first target for its electoral fury. But if White runs for reelection as an endorsed Democrat next year--as is likely--he will not face a Labor Party opponent.

In fact, no Democrat or Republican--no matter how foul--will have to worry about facing a Labor Party candidate any time soon.

Attempts to form labor-based political organizations in the United States have traditionally floundered on the question of how best to merge the militancy of the street with the practical demands of the ballot box. The Cleveland convention got the street part of the equation right. But the Labor Party's approach to the ballot box was left distinctly ill-defined--much to the dismay of many delegates, as well as a broader progressive community that had looked to the Labor Party to challenge the increasingly indistinguishable parties of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

With its decision not to run candidates for at least two years--and most likely longer--the convention told those American voters who hunger for an alternative that they will have to wait for political deliverance.

"There's no question that people are ready for a new political direction," said Gary Huck, a labor cartoonist, who has long been a supporter of the Labor Party initiative. "There is some question about whether we've provided them with that direction."

The Cleveland convention marks the most serious attempt to form a labor-based political party in America since the great political agitation of 100 years ago, which led a young railroad union leader named Eugene Victor Debs to confidently declare, "I am a Populist, and I favor wiping out both old parties so they will never come to power again."

In fact, echoes of previous labor-based political initiatives reverberated throughout the Cleveland convention center--where one elderly delegate actually recalled hearing Debs speak three-quarters of a century before. The walls of the hall were decorated with banners recalling struggles for the eight-hour day, workplace safety, civil rights, and a host of other historic, labor-backed causes. The convention adopted a platform packed with traditional appeals to working-class solidarity and calls for full employment, cradle-to-grave health care, higher taxes on the rich, a shorter work week, an end to Wall Street's abuse of trade policy, and the elimination of corporate-sponsored barriers to union organizing.

"This is the birthplace convention of the new labor movement for the twentyfirst century--a movement to contain the wild excess of corporations and to end their control over our politics, our culture, our very lives," raged consumer activist and Green Party semi-Presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who addressed the convention from the floor, drawing thunderous applause. …

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