Labor Advocate Online
Labor Party Time? Maybe Not Yet–But Don’t Hit the Snooze Button
A talk prepared for a January 13, 2013 meeting of Kansas City Labor Party Advocates
by Bill Onasch
[This presentation is in part a response to a well rounded article by Labor Party national organizer Mark Dudzic and secretary-treasurer Katherine Isaac entitled Labor Party Time? Not Yet. A blog with commentary from others about that article is also available on the labor party site.]
While this diverse country we call home has a right to be proud of many unique contributions we also have the dubious distinction of being the only industrialized democratic country without at least one mass working class political party.
The core of today’s private sector unions was built mainly during the Great Depression of the 1930s, beginning with three 1934 turning point strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, soon followed by the new CIO. These union victories at a time of mass unemployment were possible only because they were seen as a champion of the entire working class. Those union drives became a broad social movement that quickly brought dramatic improvements in the lives of millions of families, and inspired the hopes of many more. There were state labor parties that enjoyed electoral success in Minnesota and New York during this period.
Birth of the ‘Middle Class’
But after World War II most of our unions took a different direction as undamaged American industry grabbed the lead in rebuilding a war-torn world. The living standards of American workers were the envy of the world as I was growing up during this post-war boom. Many workers began to believe when they were told they were a new prosperous Middle Class who had no where to go but up. To defuse widespread sentiment for a labor party, bosses, media, and even most union officials, tirelessly preached that class based politics was now obsolete, counterproductive. Some went so far as to label class conflict as the invention of an evil Soviet Empire.
Those who promote the Middle Class myth seldom acknowledge just how many were left behind even in the most prosperous times. Race and sex discrimination certainly never went away–and remain manifest today. The unorganized did not fare nearly as well as the unionized–and still don’t. In his popular 1962 book, The Other America, Michael Harrington compellingly described how one in four Americans lived in poverty. Using the same criteria, about twenty-two percent still fall in to that category. There are even more homeless and hungry now than when Harrington did his study fifty years ago.
After the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act–the most restrictive labor law in the self-proclaimed Free World–our labor movement came to focus on collective bargaining for their dues paying members. Organizing was put on the back burner--that soon grew cold. Political action was limited to rewarding perceived friends and punishing enemies within the Democrats and Republicans. But even many of the early bargaining successes of this simplified outlook actually planted seeds of future crisis.
In other industrialized democracies, such important benefits as health care, retirement, vacation time, and even paid sick leave, have long been legislated, guaranteed by law to all workers.
An Unaffordable Option
But in the USA, instead of fighting for socialized medicine, such as the British workers won through their Labor Party, or even single-payer, as our Canadian cousins enjoy as a result of their NDP labor party, our unions negotiated employer provided group plans with the insurance companies. Often these were good plans--as long as you don’t leave your employer and your employer doesn’t leave you.
But the total cost of health insurance became part of the total compensation package negotiated with the boss. Whether or not deductions come out of your paycheck you are really paying for everything. Such costs are largely unnecessary in Britain and Canada, allowing more to be applied to wages. Instead our wages are being eaten alive by growing health care costs–by far the highest in the world even though, as recent reports again confirm, all other major countries get much better results from their health systems.
This will be no better as what Democrats cynically call the Affordable Care Act is phased in. This bogus reform was in fact written by a insurance company executive–on loan to Senate Democrats--for the benefit of the insurance robber barons. After she completed that public service duty she took a high level post within the other major beneficiary of the new law–Big Pharma, joining Johnson & Johnson.
The same happened with retirement. Rather than mobilizing politically to improve Social Security and Railroad Retirement which cover nearly all workers, our unions bargained for employer provided defined benefit pensions. Some, such as in the auto industry, were once outstanding.
But they also created what the bosses came to call a “retiree burden.” As current workforces shrunk because of technology and offshoring, industries such as auto, coal and steel accumulated more retirees than active workers. Those good pensions have now mainly been bargained away in most industries, never to be seen again by the younger Tier 2 generation.
In Europe, as technology reduced the number of workers needed in major industries, in several countries the work week was shortened, retirement age lowered, and vacations expanded to help share the work and reward workers for their greatly increased productivity.
Nothing like that on this side of the Atlantic. Bastions of unionism in auto, steel, electrical, mining, rail, and longshore have been reduced to a tiny fraction of their postwar peak, primarily by new technology. American workers with full-time jobs put in the longest hours of any workers in the industrialized world. On the other hand, millions of workers, unable to find steady full-time work, are toiling part-time, mainly low-wage with no benefits. Only the bosses have gained from labor-saving technology.
Many European countries provide college, or trade school apprenticeships, to their young people at modest, or even no charge while here student loan debt–which cannot be discharged through bankruptcy and will follow you to the grave and perhaps beyond–now exceeds credit card debt in the USA.
The few modest social benefits won through past struggles–such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid–are under bipartisan attack. As my observant wife Mary remarked to me, if the cracked tea-pots of the House majority had not refused to take yes for an answer in the Cliff negotiations with the President, Obama’s initial proposed cut in Social Security benefits would already be law.
Over-Arching Threat Gains Urgency
And, there is also an over-arching crisis that informed workers can no longer deny or ignore–climate change. This is not some problem for the distant future–it’s beginning to happen now before our very eyes. During the hottest year on record, we saw disastrous super-storms such as Hurricane Sandy, severe drought from Texas through the Midwest in to Canada, sea levels rising while levels of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi are plunging–these are sneak previews of even greater, more devastating changes global warming is bringing.
The major cause of this crisis is carbon emissions resulting from massive burning of fossil fuels. There are proven fuel alternatives–such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and hydro–that could power an economy supporting a quality life for all. Far from being a job-killer, conversion to safe, clean, renewable energy would require full employment for generations to come. But Big Business and their politicians are vested in their old profitable but destructive practices. Corporate greed is destroying the very biosphere future generations will need to sustain life as we know it.
Hardships Not Shared
The hardships and anxiety growing within the working class are not shared by the class that rules. Profits have been surging and the biggest corporations sit on a mountain of cash estimated at a trillion dollars. Some of the most ruthless attacks on organized workers come from outfits such as General Electric, Verizon and Caterpillar who are awash in record profits–and politically connected with both parties.
Yes, we’ve long paid dearly for allowing the bosses and bankers to dominate all things political through their twin official parties–and that growing price is becoming unbearable.
In 1996, some of us in this room were present at the Founding Convention of the Labor Party in Cleveland. It was an impressive event, attended by over 1400, mainly union activists. The new party had a respectable roster of union affiliates and endorsers as well as dozens of local community chapters. It looked like we were finally on the way to workers having a party of our own.
The first few years of the Labor Party continued to inspire, nationally and locally here in Kansas City. My friend Jeff Humfeld, who does a better job of filing stuff away than I do, recently gave me a number of newsletters and leaflets from the early days of the Kansas City Chapter.
On the picket line at Goodyear Topeka
They reminded me of how connected we were with the best fighters in the labor movement. We helped organize a solidarity caravan all the way to Decatur, Illinois where there were three major strikes going on at Firestone, Caterpillar, and Staley. We brought Staley Road Warriors to KC on several occasions, including a state convention of the Missouri AFL-CIO. Our banner was welcomed on many picket lines including the bitter GST steel strike. In collaboration with ATU Local 1287we organized public events against cuts in transit service and offered a proposal for transit expansion. We were invited to address a number of union meetings including one of a couple of hundred Santa Fe rail track workers in the Wichita area.
We also held a number of conferences and public forums. And we revived the long neglected tradition of a Labor Day Picnic, carrying on until the official labor movement once again scheduled events on what’s supposed to be our holiday.
But incremental factors outside our control started sapping our strength nationally and locally.
Some key unions–such as the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees–who had helped launch the party merged with other unions decidedly less friendly to the project.
Many supportive local unions disappeared because of plant closings or consolidation in to super-locals sometimes covering many states.
And, in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election fiasco, nearly all union officials unfairly blamed Ralph Nader’s Green Party campaign for Bush’s theft of the presidency. Though the Labor Party was not officially involved in Nader’s campaign we too got branded as “spoilers” to be avoided and union officials doubled down their bets on Democrat “friends.” But the truth is there are more hairs on Patrick Stewart’s scalp than there are genuine friends of labor in any branch of government in Washington.
Gradually union material support dried up. This past year we had to painfully acknowledge that while the need for a labor party has never been greater we could and should not claim to be labor’s party contesting the bosses for political power. The 1996 Labor Party project has run its course.
Some have become so demoralized they think the unions have also run their course. I don’t think Chicago Mayor Rahm Immanuel believes that after his tangle with the Chicago Teachers Union. That’s not what the bosses were thinking when a few hundred, mostly women members of an ILWU clerical local shut down the operations of America’s two biggest ports for a week. Nor do the hospital employers who have to deal with National Nurses United.
We continue to believe the project of a mass working class party will likely arise on a foundation of our only class based mass organizations–our unions. Even though unions represent only a minority of workers, you still begin with the organized, not the atomized. With a union base, we will also be able to build labor party bodies in the communities–open to all who share our views, union or not.
Others say this won’t be possible until the unions have been transformed, returning to the heritage of a class struggle perspective. I think that’s true. But I believe we shouldn’t passively await this glorious day to somehow arrive. If we are not part of the solution we can become part of the problem. We don’t pretend to be the saviors of the labor movement but we have a message that needs to be part of the mix.
With the passing of the Labor Party we need another vehicle to promote the movement for a labor party. But a new vehicle doesn’t require reinventing the wheel. The Labor Party project leaves us an honorable and useful heritage upon which we can rebuild. The Labor Party program remains our guide. It is not a static scripture but a dynamic asset that will continue to be expanded, modified and updated.
That rousing Founding Convention in 1996 didn’t spontaneously come out of the blue. It was the product of several years of patient preparation by a precursor formation–Labor Party Advocates (LPA.) In our opinion, that is the format we should revive to keep hope alive.
We aim to educate in the workplace, campus, community, as well as unions around the need for a party of our own. The party we envision will be far different than the twin parties of the bosses. It will not be exclusively focused on election cycles but will be active in all the day-today struggles of the working class and our allies.
The strength of our class is not in the kind of big bucks electoral circus staged by the donkeys and elephants. Our power flows from the workplace, the communities, actions in the streets. As our song Solidarity Forever says, “without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” When we have mobilized that solidarity potential politically then–and only then--can we consolidate our advance by winning political power through the ballot box as well.
We’re a long way from that objective. But history has proven that conditions can change quickly, sometimes unexpectedly. We have to be prepared to take advantage when our turn comes.
Restart–Not Shut Down
For now, here in Kansas City, we hope to sign up individual members, develop a plan for gaining union endorsements, support strikes and demonstrations, ally with groups such as the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer and US Labor Against the War, and sponsor some public meetings about the important issues of the day–and how a labor party could address them.
We are also in touch with Labor Party activists around the country thinking through the same problems as we confront here. Hopefully this will expand and lead to some future national collaboration.
If you agree with the gist of what I have outlined, I hope you will sign up with LPA today. Next month–February 24, 1PM, right here in this room--we will have our first business meeting which will include electing officers. With these modest steps we reopen a front to defend ourselves in the class war waged against us.
Bill Onasch was a participant in the original Labor Party Advocates and a delegate to all of the Labor Party conventions. He was a member of the commission that produced the Labor Party Electoral Policy and was elected to be the representative of Midwest Chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council--the equivalent of the party's national committee. Now retired, Onasch held elected positions in the UE, MNEA, and ATU during his working days. Since 2000, he has been webmaster of kclabor.org.
KC Labor Home