Is It Labor Party Time?

Here’s an idea for those who are trying to revitalize the badly slumping labor movement: Create a Labor Party that would truly represent America’s working people and truly challenge the Democratic and Republican parties.

Far-fetched? Sure. But the union activists who’ve been trying to put together a Labor Party for more than a dozen years claim there’s no other way to reverse labor’s long and steady decline.

Although arguing over how much emphasis to put on political activities as opposed to organizing, both the leaders of the AFL-CIO and their critics in the influential unions that have left the federation, agree that political action is essential to helping reverse the decline. But they would continue to work closely with the Democratic Party rather than operate independently.

Democrats once did much for unions – enacting the laws that helped launch the modern labor movement in the 1930s, for instance, creating social insurance programs and otherwise greatly improving the lot of working people. Yet they’ve done relatively little over the past half-century, as the proportion of workers belonging to unions has plummeted from about 35 percent to about 12 percent.

Despite the decrease in membership and decrease in help from Democrats, unions have remained among the Democratic Party’s staunchest and most valuable allies. Last year, they put more than $500 million into John Kerry’s failed presidential campaign and dispatched more than 200,000 volunteers to work for him in battleground states.

President Bush’s re-election saddled labor with four more years of one of the most anti-union administrations in history, but the Labor Party’s chief organizers say it could have been avoided if a Labor Party candidate had been on the ballot.

“The lack of a viable alternative produced a Bush victory,” asserts Alan Benjamin. “There was not a credible candidate willing to expose Bush’s lies and capable of channeling the great popular discontent with the administration. Kerry could not do that because he is cut from the same corporate cloth. On most of the fundamental issues before the voters, he was a ‘me-too’ candidate.”

As long as unions continue to operate within the two-party system, adds organizer Mark Dudzic, “the concerns of working people will continue to be subordinated to the few-and-far between bones thrown to us by the Democratic Party.”

Dudzic expects it to get even worse, as Democrats respond to pressures from Bush and his Republican allies in Congress by moving farther to the political right and farther from labor.

The Labor Party actually was founded in 1996 at a convention in Cleveland that drew delegates from unions representing nearly two million workers. But most unions, even those that sent delegates, have been reluctant to cut their ties to the Democratic Party – and unwilling to help finance Labor Party operations. The party’s activities have not gone much beyond the waging of a few local and regional political campaigns by party chapters.

But Bush’s re-election has spurred organizers to launch a new drive to establish a genuinely competitive Labor Party. They are working to get unions to form political alliances with like-minded local, state and regional groups to  deal with issues that, as Dudzig says, “speak to the core concerns of all working people.”

A government-administered national health insurance program is high among the priorities of Labor Party advocates. They also call for substantially increasing the minimum wage, for instance, shortening the standard workweek, raising the overtime pay rate, guaranteeing workers paid vacations and paid leaves to deal with urgent family matters and severance pay if they’re laid off. They’d make it much easier for them to organize unions, strike and bargain, and give  them a strong voice  in the  enforcement of job safety and health regulations.

Unions and their partners would run slates of candidates for city councils, state legislatures and Congress who would take “bold and unambiguous” positions on those and other issues independent of major party candidates and thus “present a clear picture of what politics would look like if it were conducted on behalf of the vast majority of Americans who work for a living.”

What’s more, come 2008, the party would back an independent candidate for president against the candidates of “the bosses’ twin parties.”

Yes, that and the very idea of a Labor Party does indeed seem far-fetched. But labor’s efforts for Kerry showed it has the money and manpower needed to wage a serious campaigns, and the success of labor parties in most other industrialized countries shows that, however improbable, it is possible.

Copyright © 2005 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor issues for more than four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator ([email protected], www.dickmeister.com).

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