Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

Does labor need its own party?

First Published: The Call, Vol. 9, No. 20, May 19, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Does the stand the leaders of organized labor are taking in the 1980 presidential race have anything to offer the working class?

Most top bureaucrats are likely to rally behind President Carter, thus displaying the same class-collaborationist stand in the electoral arena that they have long represented in economic matters.

At least that’s the conclusion to be drawn from recent commentary by Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, at an April 28 meeting of the Capitol Press Club. While Kirkland slapped Carter’s wrist for “backward” and “destructive” economic policies, he essentially pledged the AFL-CIO bureaucracy’s continuing support for its “national accord” with White House efforts to restrict wages. The accord, obviously, runs counter to the struggle of rank-and-file workers to defend their living standards against the ravages of double-digit inflation.

Part of Kirkland’s anti-working-class reasoning, however, is that he does not want to undermine Carter’s re-election efforts.

“Mr. Kirkland alluded to one of labor’s more self-evident political problems,” reported the April 30 New York Times, “when he noted that, while one candidate might only be marginally acceptable, the other could be totally unacceptable.”

Thus to Kirkland, Carter is a “lesser evil” than Reagan and should be supported. This conclusion, especially today, underscores the traditional bankruptcy of the reformist union leaders’ approach to American elections.


Now this bankrupt strategy is approaching a crisis. On the one hand, opinion polls show that more than half of the electorate, including much of the working class, does not want to vote for Carter or Reagan. On the other hand, the top labor bureaucracy remains wedded to the candidates and parties of monopoly capital even as these politicians are stressing austerity and war preparations.

One tendency among the labor leadership has seen Kennedy’s candidacy as their way out of this bind. In fact, among the major unions that have taken a stand so far, 14 have declared themselves for Kennedy I5 for Carter. The most well known pro-Kennedy figures are Doug Fraser of the UAW, William Winpisinger of the Machinists and especially Michael Harrington of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. Harrington’s organization includes some top leaders in public employee, IAM and other unions. Until recently, even Kirkland answered, “I’m perpendicular,” when asked if he leaned toward Kennedy or Carter.

But now Kennedy’s candidacy is floundering. Even if he wins a few more victories, it appears that Carter will have a two-to-one majority of delegates at the Democratic convention this summer.

The “left” social democrats in the unions, then, are caught in a dilemma. In supporting Kennedy, they have campaigned hard against Carter and his economic policies within the trade union reform movements and among students. But having built this anti-Carter sentiment, they will now have to reverse themselves and support Carter or break from the Democrats. Some figures in this trend, in fact, are already considering a breakaway.

For leading social-democrats like Harrington, however, breaking with the Democrats is not a choice. Even though he may lose this battle, his overall war remains that of reforming the Democrats from within. Kirkland, a “right” social-democrat and rival of Harrington’s, summed up both of their views with the statement that “the game may be rigged, but it’s the only game in town.”

But one significant aspect of the 1980 election is that a new game is being organized, even if it presently has relatively few players and some phony dealers. And even if the top labor bureaucrats remain in the old game, many insurgent and progressive forces within their base will not do so. Instead, they will be open to independent candidacies, parties and political action.

The independent candidacy of Illinois Republican John Anderson, however, has won very little support from the labor movement. The reason is clear enough: While some workers like Anderson’s “honesty” and “straight talk,” most are opposed to the substance of what he has to say.

Anderson, for instance, lashed out at “the unwillingness of the public” to “sacrifice” and “to foreswear new spending initiatives like national health insurance” in order to fight inflation. While he supports some social reforms like the ERA or abortion rights, his approach to the energy crisis is a 50-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline and further development of nuclear power.

Even on the question of political independence, Anderson’s approach is a sham. He openly states, for instance, that he is opposed to the formation of a third party and that his “national unity” candidacy is designed to bring people back into the two-party system “and to strengthen both the GOP and the Democrats.

What the working class basically needs to break from the Democrats and to mobilize those who have given up on voting is just the opposite of what Anderson is doing. It needs a labor party, based on the unions and rooted in an alliance between the workers movement and the struggles of the oppressed nationalities. This conception was spelled out in a resolution adopted at a recent national convention of the United Electrical Workers Union:

“There is no solution to the political bind in which we find ourselves,” says the UE, “except the formation of a labor party–a party which unites workers, Blacks, His-panics and other minorities, the women’s movement, senior citizens, farmers, consumers, progressive intellectuals and others who are fed up with what is happening to our economic and political life. UE has said this for 25 years. Now, other influential labor leaders and people, who are participating in many of the protest and social change movements that have developed, are beginning to raise the same question.”

So far some activity in tune with a general call like the UE’s is developing on a local level. The Lucien Blackwell mayoral campaign in Philadelphia, for instance, saw the Consumer Party there get 100,000 votes and win several Black wards. Blackwell and other Consumer Party activists are also Black trade union leaders. Other possibilities exist in a number of Black United Front organizations and in the coalition of forces being brought together for the May 17 march on Washington for jobs.

But, the formation of such a mass electoral party nationally naturally will require a hard and protracted fight against the line of the social-democratic leaders of either the Kirkland or Harrington variety. Moreover, it calls for considerable organization and education within the working class and other social movements. The forces that exist to carry out this task, however, are still relatively small and undeveloped. Even though they are growing, such a party cannot be formed by November 1980.

Some of these forces, however, are active in the newly founded Citizens Party. Since its convention in Cleveland last month, it is on the ballot in Maine, Ohio, Kentucky, New Jersey and has filed in Michigan and Massachusetts. Its prospects for ballot status in about 30 other states also look positive.

The Citizens Party is neither a socialist party nor a mass labor party. Its platform, however, is progressive and stands in opposition to the policies of monopoly capital on all the main issues of the day from plant shutdowns, to affirmative action, to opposition to war preparations and support for national independence abroad.

Whether it can become a force among the most progressive workers and minority nationalities remains to be seen. A lot depends on the orientation it adopts toward these forces in the months ahead whether it views them as the bedrock of independent political action or as simply another constituency among many social forces.

In any case, the importance of the 1980 elections for labor is precisely that political independence from the two-party system is being posed in a mass way for the first time in years. The task is now to build it in a way consistent with the overall fight of the working class for political power.