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Synthesis/Regeneration 22   (Spring 2000)

Thinking Politically

Debating Fusion, Elections,
Movement-Building and More

At the Socialist Scholars Conference on April 11, 1999 in New York City, Labor Party (LP) leader Tony Mazzocchi and Working Families Party (WFP) leader Bob Masters debated the issue of how to build an effective, labor-based, independent party. Masters is the Legislative and Political Director of Communications Workers of America (CWA) District One. Mazzocchi comes out of long years of national leadership of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union.

The WFP was formed in 1998 when a coalition of several unions, ACORN, the New Party and others decided to run City Council President, long-time Democratic Party political boss and Democratic Party Gubernatorial candidate Peter Vallone for Governor on a new Working Families line. New York is one of eight states where candidates can run for office on more than one line. If a new party gets a candidate on the ballot for Governor and then obtains at least 50,000 votes the party can run candidates at all levels for the next four years without having to go through an often-difficult petitioning process. In the debate below, differences between Labor and Working Families on this tactic and related issues were clearly presented. Following opening statements from Mazzocchi and Masters explaining the history and perspectives of their respective organizations, questions were put forward by people in the audience.

The first questions dealt with how independent labor activists should relate to the electoral system.

Mazzocchi: One of the questions was why didn't the LP support the WFP in the last election. The LP, by virtue of its delegates who were elected to attend the convention [in November, '98] and formulated a position, has decided that the LP will only endorse and support candidates who emerge from the LP running on the LP ticket (applause). That's the policy of the LP. It has nothing to do with denigrating the work of other people.

I've been in the political process the last 50 years. My definition of politics is different. Frankly, if you look at results and what you do, you wouldn't be voting for Democrats. I was the legislative director of my union for 12 years in Washington, DC. Lyndon Johnson was the President, we had a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, we had a proposed occupational safety and health bill, and we could not get it out of the House Ways and Means Committee. A Democratic President, a Democratic Congress, and we couldn't do it. Richard Nixon gets elected, we get the bill out of committee, we pass it by a large margin of votes.

We bring up pension reform which we couldn't bring up under a Democratic Congress, we get that passed. We bring up the EPA which we couldn't get passed under a Democratic Congress; we got it passed. If you look at legislation we favored, it's been passed by people you wouldn't vote for.

"If you look at legislation we favored, it's been passed by people you wouldn't vote for." —Mazzocchi

And I'm reminded that the worst thing that's happened to the health care system is the imposition of a proposal by Hillary and Bill Clinton, the corporatization of health care (applause). We don't even know who the lesser of the two evils is anymore. If George Bush had been elected in '92 we wouldn't have had NAFTA, we wouldn't have had GATT, and we wouldn't have had welfare reform, the worst attack on people without, also on the working class, that's occurred in the entire post-war period, including the crime bill. It's not the Gingrich Congress that's been imposing damage when there's a Democratic President and sufficient Democratic votes in Congress to have stopped the worst offensive against working people.

Most people don't vote not because they're stupid but because they've analyzed the political system for what it is. It doesn't work for them. That's why we're proposing an alternative that's really an alternative.

"Labor is pumping in huge sums of money and will get nothing, no matter who gets elected." —Mazzocchi

Our movement grows out of the fact that we've looked at the experience of voting for people and having them betray us, which is why workers have opted out. That's why they're pissed and mad and are ready to support the worst elements that may be emerging. That's why we want a proposal that can speak to that cynicism. In my union, where we've opted out of giving candidates money, we have as much entree to those who work on legislation. Fear is a big factor with people who are elected, but you don't have to go in there with money all the time, saying we voted for you, to get them to do what you want them to do. In New Jersey, in Middlesex County they're privatizing a hospital. The entire Middlesex County board are Democrats. The CWA along with members of my union and others have been before that board, couldn't get one single vote out of them. The state Democratic Party refuses to intervene on their behalf and they are thoroughly supported by the labor movement, financing them.

I would submit the same thing is happening nationally. Labor is pumping in huge sums of money and will get nothing, no matter who gets elected.

Masters: If the argument is that the power of unions and their allies in the streets is the most important determinant in what takes place in the legislature you have no argument from me. In fact our first campaign to raise the state minimum wage to $6.65 an hour, and we're starting to lobby, get people to demonstrate, all of the different things you do when you run a campaign to get that kind of thing passed. We agree with that. We see the party as not a conventional party that is just concerned with elections, we also see it doing things around issues, and so forth.

"We see the party as not a conventional party that is just concerned with elections, we also see it doing things around issues…" —Masters

For all the examples that Tony gave of particular pieces of legislation that were by Republican administrations we can easily cite a preponderance of things, starting with Social Security and Medicare, the Wagner Act, and anything else you want to talk about that's right and decent. Recently we've been defeated thoroughly on every level, so abstaining from actual involvement in politics or supporting Democrats has made a marginal difference. But if you look at the budget documents in this state, right now, you know we're talking about, on the one hand, continuing tax giveaways that have, quite frankly, had bi-partisan endorsement by and large for ten years, but [on the other hand] vast cuts in social spending which have been sponsored by an anti-government, anti-regulatory agenda that's been primarily moved by the Republicans.

Look, Tony is saying pretty explicitly that mass power on the outside of the system is the only real recourse you have to affect politics.

That's a credible argument. My view is we don't have that luxury. One thing I will disagree with you on is, in fact, that labor voter participation has gone up in the last couple of elections. The labor movement very effectively raised turnout among union members in the last election and that turnout made a difference in a host of races across the country. I think that's significant. The most important determinant as to whether people get involved is if their unions contact them at work or on the phone. If they're asked by their union at work to vote for a particular candidate 80% of them do it. That what the polls of the AFL-CIO off Labor '98 show.

The bottom line here is we are going to be involved in politics, it does make a difference, it's not a simple black and white question, and this is another tactic to do it.

A question was raised about the social composition of the leadership of the LP and WFP. Masters: We have a state committee that's made up of representatives of those organizations that have affiliated with the party: UAW Region 9, UAW Region 9A, Teamsters, Citizen Action, ACORN, Amalgamated Transit Union, CWA, you know the whole range of people. It's not terribly diverse. It reflects the leadership character of those organizations, mainly white males.

Mazzocchi: The LP's constitution provides that 50% of the leadership be women, that it would reflect the racial composition of the nation, and also, it has a large percentage of poor people's organizations, like the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, which is an affiliate. If you looked up at the stage at our convention you saw that the committees were predominantly people of color and representatives of poor people's organizations. And by the way, the average wage of workers in my union, as it is in CWA, is on the higher end of the industrial scale, so you have a grouping of relatively high paid workers with a lot of people who are representing the dispossessed.

Let me point out that in the post-war period we're one of the few groups that elects its delegates to a convention, they're not self-selected. You have to be a delegate, you have to represent someone, you have to be elected by someone, it's probably one of the most democratically constituted alternative parties in the entire post-war period. It's based on real folks representing the rainbow character of the nation.

"The labor movement very effectively raised turnout … and that turnout made a difference in a host of races …" —Masters

Masters: The structure I described is an interim structure. We are required by law to elect a state committee in September of 2000 which will be based upon 2, 1 male, 1 female representatives from a series of political jurisdictions that we decide, it could be by Congressional district, it could be by State Assembly district. So at the moment the leadership is reflective of the institutions; at a later date we believe it will change.

Questions were raised again about fusion, an "incrementalist" approach vs. a movement-building approach and how individual WFP members can play a role internally.

Masters: To characterize what we are doing as incrementalism I find to be, well, I don't know how to characterize it exactly. The bill that we're pushing in the state legislature would raise the state minimum wage to 6 1/2 dollars an hour and index it to inflation. It was passed by a referendum in the state of Washington in the last election. Currently, the NY state minimum wage is $4.25. I don't think it's incremental to raise the state minimum wage $2.25. That's a big win. In fact, I don't think we can pull it off.

We're for single payer health care. There's a plan called family health plus which would redistribute money and expand on the existing child health plus program which now covers hundreds of thousands of poor children up to 200% of the poverty level. You think that's a good thing or a bad thing? Until we get single payer, I'm in favor of hundreds of thousands of poor children in NY state getting health care while we wait to pass single payer (applause). I'm dealing in the world of what is actually going to happen in Albany in the next year, 2 years, 3 years or 4 years. You want to wait for single payer, fine. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people will have nothing.

Mazzocchi: The LP's position is based on our past experience with incremental approaches. We're not saying to any state group that they should not take incremental approaches or that they can't take any approach they wish outside the LP. We base our strategy on what happened in the last single payer campaign [in 1993-94], and we're trying to avoid that. We had a broad coalition for single payer and the single payer coalition got conned into adopting, Let's not be for single payer, let's be for universal principles, and the charge was led by Citizen Action into the Clinton health care campaign, which really unraveled our coalition. The coalition for single payer ended up with four groups, UE, OCAW, the Grey Panthers and the Health Research Group. Jobs with Justice, with the exception of one group in Boston, went the other way. There was total confusion. So our position now as a national party is that we have to set a national cadence. There are many unions within the LP who take incremental approaches on a whole host of legislative issues. The party sees its responsibility to beat on this national cadence drum. We don't think single payer plans in states work, but we're not telling other groups what to do or what not to do.

Masters: I spent six months working full time on health care reform, and I was one of those insidious people who sold out to Clinton. Here's the bottom line folks: there were a hundred members of Congress who signed on to the McDermott [national single payer] bill. It wasn't happening folks. Why? Because we're a weak, small movement that's geographically marginalized. When you get involved in actual politics you can measure the level of your support based on the support that exists in the legislature for a particular reform. The single payer health care movement had 85% of its sponsors in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. That was it.

Mazzocchi: Of course, real legislators enact laws. But that grows out of movements that come up-look, people don't get elected and pass a law. They respond to the type of pressures that are developed below. This is a tactical question that we probably disagree on. I disagree that you elect a series of people and all of a sudden a law gets enacted. It never worked that way. Someone mentioned that we got OSHA because Nixon responded to what was going on in the streets, and that's precisely correct. We abandoned the legislative approach in attempting to enact OSHA, we went to the streets, we aligned with the environmental movement, we created a new consciousness around this question and the legislature, as it usually does, reflects that will that was expressed. That's the tactic that we're talking about. We prefer to build a movement and the legislatures will respond to that movement. (applause)

"I disagree that you elect a series of people and all of a sudden a law gets enacted. It never worked that way." -Mazzocchi

The question was raised again about electoral tactics and the role of the electoral system.

Masters: The proof is in the pudding. The question is not under what circumstances would you run a candidate, it's how many candidates are you running next year? Is there an electoral expression to the Labor Party and what form does it take? No one, least of all me, would argue that fundamental change is made electorally. I'm not saying that. I never said that. I think the most fundamental forms of change, whether it be Social Security or Medicare, if you look at the dates of those things, the more relevant question is what's happening in the street, not who's in power. All I'm saying is that it's relatively rare, if you look at history, that we see mass upheaval in this country. You can review those opportunities in which you have wholesale social transformations. I'm arguing that the WFP has the potential to strengthen a multi-racial economic populist coalition, bringing together people who have not been in the same room before to do politics together. I believe we have the capacity to hold Democrats accountable to a more pro-labor agenda. I believe that we have the capacity ultimately to punish those elected officals from either the Republican or Democratic Party who ignore our agenda. That's really all I'm arguing. In the context of how huge organizations with a lot of money, big unions in this state, conduct themselves politically, it's a pretty significant break. It may not be everything you want, but it's a big step in the right direction.

"The question is not under what circumstances would you run a candidate, it's how many candidates are you running next year?" -Masters

Mazzocchi: The practical reality is that members of the Labor Party are involved in all sorts of activity. From top leadership on down there're a number of people who are active in various political formations and it'll be some time before there's an electoral expression, I think, from the Labor Party except in some areas, but not on a broad front, we're not ready yet.

I rejected the path of working with Democrats a long time ago. I don't think it's the way to go, but that's my decision. I think everyone's got to find their own way. A number of us went the fusion route years ago and we didn't see it pay off; maybe things have changed, but I don't see it. I think politics is a very cynical operation designed to turn people off. I think most people are rejecting that path, and the Labor Party is there to capture that discontent and give it expression and consciousness. Working class consciousness has to be elevated and people need to think in class terms if we're going to bring about real change.

[Thanks to Rob Spencer who taped this debate and made it available to Independent Politics News to transcribe.]

This article is reprinted with permission from the Summer, 1999 issue of Independent Politics News, the quarterly publication of the Independent Progressive Politics Network. For a free, sample issue, or to find out more about IPPN, contact them at P.O. Box 1041, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003, 973-338-5398 (t), 338-2210 (f), e-mail indpol@igc.org, web: http://www.ippn.org/.

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