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Delegates take on ‘formidable task’ of creating Labor Party

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

When Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto workers, spoke to the Constitutional Convention of the Labor Party, held here Nov. 13-15, he couldn’t hide his pleasure. “I never thought I’d see a Labor Party in the USA,” he said.

Neither did many others. But there they were, over 1,200 mineworkers, newspaper workers, farm workers, electrical workers and academics, united in the conviction that the two parties in the United States are not representing the working class.

As Michael Moore, filmmaker (“Roger and Me”) and writer, said, “What we have now is the evil of two lessers, Tweedledum and Tweedledummer. One party has two wings, the Democrats and the Republicans. We don’t need a third party, we need a second party.”

Tony Mazzocchi, a key organizer and former vice president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, is happy that things have come this far. “We’re one of the few third parties to hold a second convention,” he said. “Creating a new party is a formidable task.”

The Labor Party grew out of 10 years of research, conversation and grassroots organizing. The people who began the movement, including Mazzocchi and Robert Clark of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, studied past labor and progressive movements to build on their successes and avoid their failures.

“Two times in the past, labor parties ran national candidates, 1924 and 1948, and both times they went out of business shortly afterward,” said Chris Townsend, political director of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. “We want to try instead to build membership, to recruit hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members. We already have more than 20,000 members, and many affiliated and endorsing unions. We view the trade unions as the soil for our efforts.”

Founding unions include the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union; the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America; the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees; the International Longshore and Warehouse Union; the United Mine Workers of America; the American Federation of Government Employees; and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Recent affiliates include the California Nurses Association; the International Brotherhood of Dupont Workers; and the Textile Processors, Service Trades, Health Care, Professional and Technical Employees International Union.

Right to a living wage

The party hammered out a 16-point program at their founding convention in 1996, including the right to a job at a living wage (which it wants to make the 28th amendment to the Constitution). Other points: universal access to quality health care through a single-payer system; a 32-hour, four-day work week; subsidized child care and elder care for all who need it; and an end to bigotry and discrimination.

“Economic policy is not just a technical question of efficiency,” said delegate Michael Zweig, editor of Religion and Economic Justice. “It has to be guided by an ethical concern for human dignity and a commitment to the interest and power of working-class people, who are the majority of our country. The Labor Party convention is an important contribution to building a truly moral power in this country.”

The most significant action taken at this convention was an overwhelming vote to run and endorse the party’s own candidates for office. Candidates must be members of the Labor Party, must be accountable to the party membership and will be required to follow the positions outlined in the party platform. Also, a candidate must have a campaign financing plan, cash in hand and sufficient volunteers to cover precincts.

Delegates cited the reasons for lack of faith in either major party: loss of jobs from NAFTA, loss of jobs to developing markets, diminished rights of workers, abysmal working conditions and bloated corporate profits.

“Any political party that doesn’t recognize this incredible abuse of power and doesn’t have a platform to deal with it is not privy to the support of working people,” said Hargrove.

Workers took the stage to tell about three-year strikes in West Virginia against coal mine owners who won’t give pensions to retirees, prohibitions and threats against organizing in farm areas, the lockout by the Detroit Free Press, and loss of jobs to nonunion shops.

Moore, one of the main speakers at the convention, said corporations have made the job of organizing workers easier by continuing to lay off employees in the face of fat profits, and shoving them into “crummy” HMOs, which, he joked, stand for “hand the money over.”

‘Too few have too much’

Ralph Nader, another main speaker, commended party members for their serious work before formation. “I don’t know of any political party that has set up such serious criteria ahead of time. There is no sense going into the political arena to nibble off 2 percent of the vote.”

Nader also warned that Democrats and corporations may attempt to slip into the party. “The stronger you get, the more subject to infiltration you’ll become,” he said. “Corporations have no loyalty. They will go anywhere they see opportunity.”

Nader spoke of the union’s efforts as a class struggle. “The most central issue must be the redistribution of wealth,” he said. “Too few have too much wealth, and too much power, at our expense.”

Nader was optimistic about the future of the Labor Party. Looking around the hall, he said, “These are the people who fight the wars, make the machines and pay more than their fair share of taxes compared to the rich and the corporations. It’s going to be hard to marginalize these people.”

The Labor Party will not hold another national convention until the spring of 2002. It will not be a nominating convention. “Politics is the least important part of the picture,” said Bob Kasen, an organizer for the party. “We’re building a movement here. Nobody, but nobody, has built a membership-based organization, the essence of independent politics. Politicians will come in after the movement is established.”

Labor Party's Web site: http://www.igc.org/lpa/

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998