Response from Jed Dodd
Former Labor Party Executive Board Member
General Chairman, Pennsylvania Federation, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, IBT
It was very therapeutic for me to read this analysis about our failed efforts to build a Labor Party. The decision to discontinue our efforts to build a Labor Party, while a correct one and dictated to us by the circumstances, was still a very bitter pill to swallow. It was also very sad. We valiantly, and vainly, attempted to build a new, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist party to advance the material, spiritual and class interests of American workers. Our governing bodies authorized the use of substantial organizational resources in a strong show of support for this cause. The allocation of resources in any Union is always a political decision and for this effort the support, in our union, the Pennsylvania Federation BMWED – Teamsters, was unanimous. The need for an anti-capitalist Labor Party has in no way diminished, rather as Sister Isaac and Brother Dudzic have correctly pointed out, the collapse of this effort directly paralleled the crushing of the last gasp of labor movement militancy in the late 1990s and early part of this century.
It was necessary to build the Labor Party primarily within the labor movement because the labor movement is the only mass working class organization in the United States and has the material resources to accomplish the task. In addition, the polling we took among rank and file union members, in every instance, demonstrated broad support for independent anti-corporate political action. This rank and file support was never reflected back in terms of organizational resources by the broad labor bureaucracy as a whole. This is because our trade union leadership and institutions are designed so they are never accountable directly to the rank and file membership. In fact, if I was a global capitalist, and was confronted with the possibility of having to deal with Unions, I would design the American trade union movement to represent my workers. I could rest easy knowing that there would be no significant challenge to our basic class relations. In fact, except for the occasional noise (fairness whining), I could depend upon this current union leadership to act as a human relations department and ensure that my employees are properly tamed. Profits would always flow and there would never be a real threat to production.
The current labor leadership, with some exceptions, have ascended to power with no history of social struggle or sacrifice and most actually reject struggle on principle. In fact, in some international unions there is now total reliance upon lawyers, staff and lobbyists to protect the members’ interests. Law and politics in America are designed to protect capital and wealth. This ideological bankruptcy on the part of the American labor movement leadership can not be overstated and there is no reason to be kind about it. Our movement has been destroyed by this thinking. This explains why Reagan can fire an international union for engaging in a strike (PATCO), Clinton can initiate trade policies that destroy wages and jobs (NAFTA), Bush can start wars of aggression that suck America dry of resources while war profits enrich his Vice President and close circle of friends, Obama can continue these trade and globalization policies and sell insurance company (a.k.a. scum of the earth) expansion and call it universal health care, or State Governors can launch relentless attacks on our public workers without an effective response from the American labor movement leadership.
When you discuss these issues with any group of rank and file workers the demand is made for an effective, militant and law breaking response. Our current labor leadership and our institutions are designed to cap off this militancy and replace it with something legal and non-threatening to capital. The current state of the labor movement has no effective leadership, is beyond sad and is on life support. It may be capable of building an effective third party, but it won’t be anti-capitalist, or even really anti-corporate, and this is what is needed. I do not know of any other organizing model on which to base a working class party except the labor movement. However, we are caught in the contradiction that the labor movement’s primary function, as established by the legal framework which recognizes us, is not to protect the rights of workers, but to ensure the movement does not expand and to ensure that we can not legally threaten capital on its own playing field of production.
Another structural problem we encountered in organizing the labor party is not related to this institutional and ideological bankruptcy. Our Labor Party movement was a mile wide and an inch deep organizational model. It substantively lacked the depth to force the labor bureaucracy to act on the natural class militancy of the rank and file. While there was broad ideological support to replace the corporate parties with a party for workers, the commitment to put that into action did not run deep, even within our rank and file. To hold the labor leadership accountable, and to force the allocation of resources necessary for success, would have required a national rank and file movement capable of piercing several layers of bureaucracy, but this amount of energy could not be harnessed. Labor Party survived precisely because we did not interfere in the internal workings of the affiliates, so this energy was not organized from the outside, but had to come from within the byzantine political structures of each of the affiliates. An aspect of this problem was that there wasn’t a whole lot for the individual member to do except to be a member. We tried to supplement this vacuum with the Labor Party educational program and for a period of time that was helpful in maintaining interest, but after several years of perceived inaction at the ground level it became more and more difficult to keep our members interested and membership renewals fell into serious decline. Fortunately, the Labor Party rank and file education program was salvaged from the remnants of the party, as the Labor Party fell into dissolution. With a little retrofitting, we still use the methodology quite nicely in our own internal program on power, wealth, politics and unions and it is always well received in our introductory educational courses for new members.
The Labor Party program, called, The Call for Economic Justice: The Labor Party Program, that emerged from the founding convention is a lasting legacy of our failed effort. It has enabled individual affiliates of the Labor Party to take pieces of the program and organize around them and make these issues part of the national debate. This is obvious with respect to our Just Health Care campaign that champions the single payer solution. It is this model that has been adopted by Conyers and Sanders in the House and Senate, and this achievement is noteworthy. The basics in our program were born out of tense, democratic debate and represent a consensus of the progressive and militant wing of the trade union movement. These ideas did not die with the collapse of the Labor Party and are still relevant. They will serve another generation of progressive trade unionists well who are looking for programmatic answers.
At the same time the program united the party ideologically it did not unite us organizationally. Pieces of the program were advanced by the Unions most interested in their substance and the program itself was never used as an organizing structure as a whole. The program was used to appeal to constituent interests. We in the Pennsylvania Federation are as a guilty of this as anyone. For instance, we have always been a supporter of the Single Payer health care alternative as expressed in the Labor Party’s Just Health Care campaign. However, except for doing some educational work among our activist leadership we were content to let the California Nurse’s and other constituent organizations do the heavy lifting for the program.
Finally, after my eviscerating (and correct) analysis of our current crop of capital’s hall monitors, who lead our unions, I would be a little less critical of their effort to support Democrats without demanding material return for those efforts. The movement is not politically strong enough to demand material concessions from capital. The Democratic Party is a corporate party and Obama is a corporate stooge. For the record, Obama never pretended to be other than a corporate stooge for the capitalist class. We don’t have the luxury of living in a world where we can have what we want, but we do live in a world where we can make choices. The right wing Republican majority in the House is a fascist formation. There is a difference between the Obama wing of the Democratic Party and this grouping. This difference will be felt in the living standards, human rights, and freedom of the American people, and the global working class, if this fascist formation is allowed to ascend to controlling power. Spending time and resources to keep this formation out of power is necessary and in our class interests. The choice we must make now is to ally with corporate Democratic conservatives to defeat corporate Republican fascists. In this analysis our hall monitors are correct. It will be necessary to get our hands dirty with the Obamaites while we try to move our trade unions to use the power of organizing, the strike and civil disobedience against the current trade policies, federal and state efforts to make us illegal, the military budget and their wars of aggression, growing income gaps, declining wages, etc. Sister Isaac and Brother Dudzic are correct, without a new and fighting labor movement, any attempt to build a new Labor Party will fail just as the old one did. The agitation, organizational and educational work necessary to get us to a new labor movement and a new labor party are the same and will build on each other until, like the men and women who initially built our unions, we once again adopt a policy of class conflict instead of class collaboration. Perhaps then we will have our Labor Party and when capital offers us the Wagner Act and Franklin Roosevelt to protect capitalism from revolution, the deal will be rejected and we can use our new party to build a new world that benefits all equally.