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Synthesis/Regeneration 20   (Fall, 1999)

The Labor Party Sets Its Electoral Strategy

by Howie Hawkins, Syracuse Green Party

The Labor Party held its second national convention at the downtown Pittsburgh convention center on November 13-15, 1998. 1440 people attended, including 1207 delegates carrying 1922 votes. The convention was about the same size as the founding convention in Cleveland in June 1996, but there were far fewer observers checking it out. In Cleveland, I ran into many Greens. In Pittsburgh, the only other Green I saw was Ralph Nader.

The voting delegations were heavily skewed toward the affiliated local, regional, and international unions. Of the 1922 votes allocated, the 36 community-based chapters had only 142 of the votes. Most of the delegates were graying white men. Only about 20% were women and 5% were people of color.

The Labor Party has about 10,000 individual members and affiliations from national and local unions representing about 1 million workers. The biggest affiliated unions include the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers; United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers; California Nurses Association; International Longshore and Warehouse Union; American Federation of Government Employees; United Mine Workers of America; Farm Labor Organizing Committee; and Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees.

But the Labor Party has not grown much in the last two years. Most of the affiliated unions have not pushed the Labor Party internally. The chapters have been stagnant. The Labor Party's national petition campaign for a 28th Amendment to the US Constitution to establish the right to a job at a living wage has not become the public crusade and Labor Party outreach and recruiting vehicle it was hoped to be. The three-person national staff feels overworked and overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, the Labor Party must be seen as an important ally to the Greens in building an independent progressive political movement in the US. Though it has not had explosive growth, it has been able enlist more unions than any attempt to build a labor party in the US since the Farmer-Labor Party movement in the 1920's and 1930's.

In Cleveland in 1996, the big question had been the adoption of a structure and a 16-point program, "A Call for Economic Justice." The program's demands include: the right to a job at a living wage, labor law reforms to guarantee workers' rights to organize, universal health care, a guaranteed adequate income, public campaign financing, a revitalized public sector, progressive taxation, a 32-hour work week with four weeks paid vacation, and income support for workers displaced by environmental protection measures.

In Pittsburgh this year, the big question was the Labor Party's electoral strategy. Many delegates hoped that a decision to enter into the electoral arena would spur new growth for the Labor Party.

Resolution on Electoral Strategy

An Electoral Strategy Commission had been formed at the Cleveland convention and its report to the Pittsburgh convention called for a Labor Party that would "stand independent of the corporations and their political representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties. Our overall strategy is for the majority of American people —working class people—to take political power. Within this framework of class independence, with the ultimate goal of achieving power, we accept the tactic of running candidates." The resolution made clear, however, that electoral politics is no more important than the party's community and workplace education and organizing that continue before, during, and after elections.

The electoral strategy report ruled out cross-endorsement or fusion by saying that the Labor Party will only run "Labor Party members running solely as Labor Party candidates" and that the "Labor Party will not endorse any other candidates."

...the report ruled out the registrant party form in favor of the mass membership form.

In the section of the report dealing with the "Accountability" of Labor Party candidates, the report ruled out the registrant party form in favor of the mass membership form. "The Labor Party is not politics as usual—we are a party of principle. Candidates shall be chosen by the members through convention at the appropriate level, not through primary." The next section on "State and Federal Laws" added: "The Labor Party National Council will develop guidelines, based on legal counsel, to ensure that Labor Party electoral campaigns meet the requirements of federal and state laws." The only way the Labor Party can nominate by convention instead of primary and satisfy election laws in many states is to change those laws.

Finally, the electoral strategy report stated that in order to run a Labor Party candidate, the chapter or affiliate must get approval from a National Electoral Committee, appointed by the National Council of the Labor Party. The National Electoral Committee will evaluate potential candidacies based on a number of criteria; including informing the national office a year in advance "when possible," having enough money and organized volunteers to run a credible campaign, having enough support of the district's trade unions "to ensure that the Labor Party candidate is seen as the labor candidate," and having a written campaign plan that includes how the campaign will build the membership of the party.

Centralization of Candidate Selection

Delegates attempted to amend the electoral strategy report from the floor in two ways: to repeal the national's right to veto local nominations and to allow fusion candidacies.

Those speaking in favor of the amendments said that the national has to trust the initiative of the grassroots in order to build the party from the bottom up. One delegate charged that the resolution is designed to enable the national to ensure that the Labor Party runs no candidates. Another said that no labor party in the world requires central committee approval of local candidates. One likened this centralist structure to the Chinese Communist Party.

Those opposed to the amendments said that central control would make the Labor Party more powerful by ensuring unity and one voice for the Labor Party instead of fragmentation. Another feared that marginal candidates would marginalize the Labor Party. One of those opposed said the Labor Party shouldn't be running candidates until the majority of unions backed the Labor Party and another said not until the AFL-CIO itself supported the Labor Party.

Bill Shortell, a Connecticut delegate, and member of the Electoral Strategy Commission; explained the commission's report; as a compromise between one wing of the party that wants to stay out of the cesspool of electoral politics and its capacity to co-opt Labor candidates until most unions back a much stronger Labor Party, and another wing that wants to run educational electoral campaigns now. The compromise, he said, was to run only credible campaigns. Dave Campbell, an OCAW delegate from the Nevada/Southern California region and chair of the Electoral Strategy Commission, justified the national veto by saying that the national veto was not intended to squash Labor Party candidacies but was needed to protect unions whose members' dues support the party but cannot legally be used for electoral campaigns.

The debate was vigorous, with about 25 people speaking, alternating pro and con on the amendments. But both amendments to eliminate nationals right to veto local candidates were overwhelmingly defeated by voice votes. Two things that would hold throughout the convention became clear. One was that almost all of the speakers from the floor were from the minority of delegates from community-based chapters. The other was that when the unions voted as a bloc, they could carry any vote. However, while many votes in Cleveland had a strong chapter vs. union division, this was not the case in Pittsburgh.

Fusion Debated

The second set of two proposed amendments challenged the electoral strategy resolution's bans on endorsing the candidates of other parties and against running cross endorsed or fusion candidates with other parties. This debate opened up when Ed Bloch, Secretary of the New York Labor Party, pointed out from the floor that the Greens in New York had just won a ballot line the previous week running on a platform that was compatible with the Labor Party's economic program. Bloch asked the Electoral Strategy Commission whether they had considered fusion with independent progressive parties as opposed to the Democrats and Republicans. Campbell responded that they had considered this angle of the fusion question but felt that fusion could "muddy the question of class independence." He added, however, that once the Labor Party had established its own identity, the question of electoral coalitions could be re-evaluated.

At this point, an amendment to eliminate the ban on endorsing or fusing with candidates of other parties was proposed. In the discussion of this amendment, most speakers against the amendment were opposed to endorsement of or fusion with Democrats, but were open to fusion with the Greens. This amendment was overwhelmingly defeated by voice vote.

Another amendment to open the door to fusion was introduced by proposing to eliminate "solely" in the language of the resolution that read "support only candidates for office who are Labor Party members running solely as Labor Party candidates." Bill Henning of the Communication Workers of America Local 1180, a key union backer of the Working Families Party in New York, introduced this amendment, saying, "It looks like we're going to have ballot spots for the Working Families Party and the Green Party. It would make no sense to me to have candidates from these parties running while the Labor Party runs someone else or sits on the sidelines." An opponent of the amendment said that the Greens and Working Families are too middle class and don't share the Labor Party's perspective of making the working class into the ruling class. Mostly New Yorkers spoke from the floor in this debate. Another CWA Local 1180 member said the resolution's ban on cross-endorsement was sectarian, narrow, and isolated the Labor Party from a diverse working class and, in New York, puts the Labor Party into direct competition with natural allies like the Greens and Working Families.

Shortell spoke again for the Electoral Strategy Commission. He said that they recognized both that fusion is a potentially important electoral tactic and that sectarianism is a danger. He continued, "We are just now embarking on electoral politics. For us to immediately go into fusion politics before we establish who we are would be a mistake. In this initial period, we need to talk to parties that have similar programs to ours and make sure that we don't have more than one progressive third party candidate running." Shortell affirmed the right of individual Labor Party members to work on such non-Labor Party campaigns. This amendment to allow fusion was also defeated by a voice vote that was somewhat closer, with CWA Local 1180 delegates adding a loud union bloc of voices to the scattering of ayes around the convention hall.

Learning from the Labor Party

The vigorous but orderly debate on the electoral strategy resolution was a model of democratic deliberation in a large assembly. This characterized the whole convention. The convention used Robert's Rules and each delegation was issued a set of large cards of different colors to be raised at the floor mikes to get the chair's attention. Each color or combination of colors informed the chair whether the speaker wanted to speak for or against a motion or to raise a point of order, information, or personal privilege. The procedures for speaking and making motions were printed in the program book, which also had a chart of basic parliamentary procedures, with the types of motions listed in their order of precedence and whether they were debatable, could be amended, what vote they needed for adoption, and so forth.

The Greens can learn from the Labor Party. It brings a wealth of experience in organizing large organizations and movements. After participating in both Green Party and Labor Party national conventions, I think the Greens should re-examine the efficacy and democracy of using its consensus-seeking decision-making process in large assemblies. A good case can be made for Robert's Rules; a system which evolved out of America's revolutionary experiment in directly democratic deliberative assemblies by town meetings and voluntary associations. The Greens could also profit from looking at its commitment to dues paid by a mass membership and its use of non-electoral as well as electoral campaigns to recruit and organize members and build the party.

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