History in the Making

Rob Sewell reports from the founding convention of the American LaborParty in Cleveland, Ohio..."This is war. We have dug in our heels and we will not surrender." With these words of defiance, Margaret Trimmer-Hartley speaking on behalf of the 2,000 striking newspaper workers in Detroit, brought the founding Labor Party Convention in Cleveland to its feet. An older trade unionist from Chicago approached the microphone and began playing on his harmonica the old union anthem, "SolidarityForever". The whole Convention spontaneously erupted to the sound. Every delegate linked arms in a show of strength and unity. It served to sum up the whole mood of jubilation and determination that everyone present was carving out a new heroic chapter in the history of the American working class.

The packed hall of over 1,400 delegates from 44 American states was surrounded by huge portraits of past class struggles from the Knightsof Labor, to the recent battles of the mine workers. The response to the call to build an American Labor Party was overwhelming and the organisers were forced to shift the venue at short notice to a much bigger place. "It was a lot bigger than I expected," said Jerry Tuckerwho, who leads the broad left New Directions Movement in the United AutoWorkers.

Tony Mazzocchi, a leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, and key figure in the campaign to form a Labor Party, said: "Ninety percent or more of the people here are trade unionists elected by their unions as delegates. You look at any alternative convention in the post war period and they're mostly self-selected."

The union delegates at the Convention represented a combined membership of nearly two million workers nationwide. The mood of anticipation at the founding Convention burst into a standing ovation as Robert Clark, General Secretary-Treasurer of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America announced the official opening of the Convention. The feeling was electric. "Sister got to go down, Brother got to go down, Got to build this Labor Party right now"  was the general refrain. It represented the fresh radical new beginnings of America's political working class movement, and was a great harbinger for its future development.

"The time has come to say clearly and simply... we work for a living, we get dirty...but we know what's happening to us as people and the people we represent. Enough is enough... We're going to organize a political party that represents the working class in this country... We are going to organise to take our country back." With these words Robert E. Wages, President of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union opened his keynote speech to the assembled delegates. "There are more of us than there are of them... if we organize ourselves we can reclaim the political power that has been stolen from us.... For 100 years, organized labor was the only force against organized bosses, of organized Capital... If we believe we are powerless, we will be powerless. But we need to give voice to those who want a voice. We will give voice and power to the working people of this country who need it and desire it." He stated he was against those union leaders who wanted to be "joined to the hip of the Democratic Party. We need to take our message to the rank and file of the unions of this country." He went on to pose a choice: either we have "a society run by the money-class; or those who make it run everyday. We are not going to sell out to the bosses." Brother Wages talked of the need to organize a million workers into theLabor Party: "It's going to be a long road. But if not now, when? If not here, where? If not us, who?"

It was a clarion call to all American workers. And was followed by Jim Hightower former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture: "Who fights for the interests of the working class? Not the Republicans or Democrats.They're sleeping with Wall Street, but you and me are getting screwed. It is the working class who speaks for the working class. It is time we stood up and fought. Six out of ten did not vote in 1994. We have to start new politics in this country." He went on to shout out "Organize!Organize! Organize!" and "Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!" which soon brought the loudest cheers from the Convention floor.

"They say we're a bunch of labor agitators," he went on: "damn right we are! Just remember, the agitator is the centre of the washing machine that gets the dirtout. And not a moment too soon. They got the fat cats, but we've got the alley cats. And there are more alley cats...." He ended by quoting the veteran labor activist and socialist Mother Jones who fought alongside the mineworkers: "My advice to you is: 'We need to raise less corn and more hell!'"

In the afternoon it was unanimously decided to suspend the Convention business and show our solidarity with local authority workers whose job contracts had been attacked by the Mayor of Cleveland, Michael Wright. Thousands of us joined an AFL/CIO rally outside City Hallspilling out across the road and blocking all rush-hour traffic.Workers chanted slogans demanding the Mayor come down. "Bring himdown!", "Union!" and "No peace, no justice!" shook the whole area. Then union leaders gave militant speeches attacking the Mayor who had been elected on the votes of working people, and in the words of Bro. Wages "he kicked them in the teeth... that shows you why we need a LaborParty in this country."

It was soon discovered that this rat of a Mayor had scuttled away to his nearby hotel for safety. The rally soon turned into a march on the hotel. Shouting slogans and singing union songs this body of trade unions broke through the doors of the hotel and hundreds occupied the downstairs lobby - to the horror of the impotent management! The noise of the chanting was deafening. The police were nowhere to be seen. In fact, along with his threatened colleagues in the fire department, Bob Beck, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, participated in the protest action! When it was clear the Mayor had escaped by the back door, the protesters left to talk to the press and media--which gave the demonstration full coverage.

This gives you a clear indication of the militant, fresh mood that dominated the proceedings of the Convention. In the heated debates over constitution and programme, the most controversial items centred around the issue of clearly breaking with the Democratic Party, standing Labor candidates and the wording over abortion. The key slogan of Labor PartyAdvocates was: "The bosses have two parties, we need one of our own."

The vast majority of members are wedded to this idea. Nevertheless, differences arose over approach and tactics. There were the more radical delegates from the chapters (branches) of the LPA who argued passionately that the Party must completely break from the idea of being a pressure group on the Democrats as some leaders had suggested. "The Republicans and Democrats are the party of Fords, General Motors, DuPonts--that's what they represent," stated Eric Lerner from New Jersey in a forceful contribution. "Are we going to merely be a pressure group?" he continued. "Saying we are the Labor Party is not enough. We must be one. We must break definitively with the Republicans and Democrats."

This was linked to the need for the party to stand candidates and engage in electoral activity to build its organization and carve out its political independence. While it was not yet ready to fight a national election or presidential campaign, the party should engage where they were strong enough in city, county, or state elections. The leadership were opposed to this line as unwise and unfeasible at this time. They argued that the AFL/CIO nationally supported theDemocratic Party, and until we build up then they will continue to do so. The newly elected national AFL/CIO president John Sweeney, although he was in Cleveland, refused to attend the Convention, arguing that "We should save the creation of a labor party to a non-presidential (election) year."

Bro. Mazzocchi told the Convention, "We are arguing about how best to fight. What made this Convention possible was finance from the unions; our officials have been paid for by the unions. We have to walk before we can run... Two years or less is a whisper of time to create a fighting force."

Union funds which have so far bankrolled the Labor Party Advocates, cannot be used for partisan political campaigns. It was not feasible, he said, to stand because the new party had yet to organise a mass following and a grass roots organisation. Many of the trade union delegates, although sympathetic to standing electorally, supported this position. "Running candidates immediately is pissing in the wind", said one. "We are a fledgling organisation. We need to win not just run... there are many other actions we can take to promote our cause, for instance, participating in strikes, demonstrations, etc. Remember last year the people in France shut down a whole country."

Another delegate, referring to the demonstration inCleveland and the year long newspaper strike in Detroit, argued: "We want more action. More City Halls, more Detroits..." He argued at this time to build the Labor Party "on the streets and picket-lines," not through elections. In the end, after a heated debate, the leadership's position was passed, although a sizable minority of the Convention favoured a measured electoral strategy. The agreed motion, which was amended, was not to endorse or run candidates for two years until an electoral commission would report to the next Convention, and the issue re-discussed in the light of "recruiting and organising sufficient numbers of workers with sufficient collective resources to take on an electoral system dominated by corporations and the wealthy."

As one postal worker union delegate from Detroit who supported standing candidates told me: "Two years. Well I can live with that." And that seemed to be the general mood. It is clearly an issue that will not go away, and will have to be faced up to sooner rather than later. The Convention adopted a constitution and program far more radical than the "We oppose NAFTA and GATT in their current forms. We also reject narrowly nationalistic solutions to trade imbalances that scapegoat our fellow workers in other countries... Our Labor Party will actively promote a strategy of international solidarity and cooperation with labor movements and labor parties in other nations to confront the global attack on our environment and living conditions. We oppose all policies instituted by corporate-dominated lending institutions likethe World Bank that force developing nations to lower the wages of their workers."

On the basis of such a program, which addresses the needs and aspirations of American workers, the American Labor Party can galvanize the support of millions that face brutal attacks by the corporations, and those who are struggling daily to make ends meet. American society is one of the most polarized in the Western world. The contrasts between rich and poor are very stark. In Britain, the top 1% of the population owns 18% of the personal wealth; in the USA the top 1% owns around 40% of the wealth. This means, given the growing bankruptcy of the two major parties of big business, the Republicans and Democrats, the potential for the Labor Party is enormous. If it takes its message in a bold fashion to the working class of America, it will not take 100 years to establish a mass labor party as in Britain and on the European continent. Ever rapidly, the American working class can catch up in mighty leaps, and on a very radical program, outstrip its European brothers and sisters!

Such a development would mean an historic break-through. It would shake the foundations of Corporate America and create shock waves throughout the entire world. The potentially mighty American labor movement, once it takes this step of rising to its feet will be a world shattering event. It can move very rapidly into the vanguard of the struggle for a new society in America and internationally. All the indications point to this founding Convention of the American Labor Party as the beginning of organized labor's giant step.

Baldemar Velazquez, representing the Farm Labor Organising Committee (FLOC), which campaigns to organize workers on farms producing for the giant monopolies Cambell's and Vlasic's, summed up the Convention with the words: "Brothers and sisters, you have no idea what an historic occasion this is, such hope and such expectation.... We are witnessing a reordering of the forces that will shake this world, based on the people who roll up their sleeves and go to work every day."

Many of the delegates who attended this founding of the American Labor Party believe this to be true. Below, we reprint the introduction to the party's founding program:

Labor's American Dream

We are the people who build and maintain the nation, but rarely enjoy the fruits of our labor. We are the employed and the unemployed. We arethe people who make the country run but have little say in running the country. We come together to create this Labor Party to defend our interests and aspirations from the greed of multinational corporate interests. Decades of concessions to corporations by both political parties have not produced the full employment economy we have been promised. Instead income and wealth disparities have widened to shameful extents. We offer an alternative vision of a just society that values working people, their families and communities. We, the members of this Labor Party, see ourselves as keepers of the American Dream of opportunity, fairness and justice. In our American Dream, we all have the right:

  • To a decent paying job and a decent place to live
  • To join a union freely without fear of being fired or other retribution
  • To strike without fear of losing our job
  • Not to be discriminated against because of our race, gender, ethnicity, disability, national origin, or sexual orientation, at work or in our communities
  • To free, quality public education for ourselves and our children
  • To universal access to publicly-funded, comprehensive, quality health care for all residents
  • To retire at a decent standard of living after a lifetime of work
  • To quality of life in our communities enhanced by a fully funded public sector. The Democratic and Republican parties serve the corporate interests that finance them.
  • We oppose corporate power that undermines democratic institutions and governments.
  • We oppose corporate politicians and parties that provide billions in corporate tax breaks and subsidies to the rich,selling themselves to the highest bidder.
  • We reject the false choice of jobs versus environmental responsibility. We will not be held hostage by corporate polluters who poison our workplaces and our communities.
  • We reject the redistribution of billions of dollars of wealth from poor and working people to the rich.
  • And we reject every opportunist who plays the race, gender, or immigrant card to keep us from addressing our real needs, and the needsof our families and communities.

Our Labor Party understands that our struggle for democracy pits us against a corporate elite that will fight hard to retain its powers and privileges. This is the struggle of our generation. The future of our children and their children hangs in the balance. It is a struggle we cannot afford to lose.