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Gordon Haskell

Labor ’Scope

Democratic Participation by Members
Is Key to Labor Political Action

(30 May 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 22, 30 May 1949, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“It is sincerely hoped that every member of the AFL will get out and vote for the candidates that have been endorsed by the great majority of your fellow brother and sister trade-unionists ... By exercising your privilege of voting, you can play your full part in the democratic processes that make up this great country of ours ...” – (East Bay Labor Journal, April 15, 1949)

The above two sentences appeared in one of the most progressive AFL papers we have seen on the eve of the recent nominating election for city officers in Oakland, Calif. As previously reported in Labor Action, in a very light vote, almost every candidate endorsed by the AFL’s Labor League for Political Education was defeated. (They were also endorsed by the right-wing CIO- PAC.)

There were no doubt many reasons for the failure of the endorsed candidates. But among the most important was the policy of the AFL and CIO leadership so well summed up in the above quotation.

First, it is not correct to say that the LLPE candidates had “been endorsed by the great majority of your brother and sister trade-unionists.” This majority was never consulted. The result was that the vast majority of the trade-unionists simply stayed home.

Full Part?

But the second sentence quoted above is at the very core of labor’s political weakness in America today. “By exercising your privilege of voting, you can play your full part in the democratic processes that make up this great country of purs.” That sentence is an indictment not only of the AFL leadership’s political attitude but of the “democratic processes” of the country as a whole.

Just casting a Vote is NOT the full part which the representatives of capital, the businessmen, big and not so big, play in the political setup. They are very careful to see to it that men who represent THEIR interests are nominated and run for office. They see to it that these men get plenty of publicity in press and radio, either because business owns the press and radio or because they give their candidates the money to get this publicity.

After their candidates are elected, the representatives of capital, the industrialists, real-estate interests, bankers, big merchants, keep a constant vigil over THEIR officeholders and see to it that they vote right in council, legislature and Congress, and that they administer right in every executive department of government – “RIGHT” for them.

The workingmen and women, on the other hand, the vast majority of the citizens of the country, cannot use the SAME method of nominating THEIR representatives and seeing to it that they faithfully represent THEIR interests once elected. For the workers don’t represent millions of dollars and vast industrial empires.

They only represent themselves – millions upon millions of people. THEIR political power can only be made effective by organization. And they can become ACTIVE participants in the “democratic processes” only if they are organized politically in a democratic manner.

Here’s a Way

That is not the way the LLPE and the PAC are organized at the present time.

True, their officials are often the elected officers of some union or central labor body. But they were not originally elected by the rank and file to make political decisions for them, and hence the rank and file have no control over and very little interest in the political decisions (or endorsements) they make.

But how could the rank and file of labor actually participate in the democratic processes except by just casting a vote? We offer below a sketch of how the whole trade-union movement could be organized for ACTIVE participation in the democratic processes.

Let’s start three months before any local election. (This plan could be applied on a national scale with slight changes.) Every local union is asked to elect a special delegate to a political nominating committee. These delegates meet, draw up a draft program for the elections, and propose a slate of men with a real record as members of or active supporters of the labor movement who are willing to run on that program and no other.

The program and slate are returned to the locals for discussion. AFTER thorough discussion, the locals vote on the program, plus any amendments and elect delegates to a political convention. This convention then draws up the final program, endorses the final slate of nominees to be put before the voters and sets up a campaign committee to direct the campaign.

How has the individual unionist’s participation in the democratic processes thus far been increased?

He has had a chance to help make the decisions on the program on which his candidates are going to run. He has helped make the decision on who the candidates will be. And the candidates, who know that they owe their nomination to the will of the majority of the workers in the area, will feel a thousand times more responsible to that majority than they can possibly feel under present practices.

A man in office is subject to many pressures. When any matter of importance is before the city council or other body in which he serves, every interest group in the area puts on the pressure. If labor is concerned, the labor leaders will pay him a call. But so will the bankers and big industrialists and merchants and real-estate owners or their representatives. And the pressure that can be worked up with a few million dollars behind it is positively astounding.

The experience of every political body in the world shows that in the clinches there is only one kind of pressure that can hold even “honest” politicians in line when the big money starts putting on the heat. That is the absolute knowledge that the politician owes his position to the political power of the working people, and that if he doesn’t perform in their interests he will lose that position as sure as he is alive.

Not in the Chorus

But there is only one way that labor can have politicians in office who owe their position to labor and who will lose it if they stop representing the working people and yield to the pressure of capital. That is if the ranks of labor – not just a few leaders, but the real “majority of brother and sister trade-unionists” – have ACTIVELY participated in nominating THEIR candidates on the basis of THEIR program and elected them by virtue of the power of THEIR political organization.

As long as the labor leaders really believe that casting a vote on election day is the “full part” Which the ranks can or should play in the “democratic processes” they arc going to continue to lose elections. For the ranks are becoming increasingly convinced that this role is so small and insignificant and ineffective that they won’t even bother to show up on the stage to play it.

They are tired of playing in the chorus while their employers manage the show, direct it from the wings and have their favorites in the stellar roles. Organized democratically, the workers can run the whole show, and more and more of them know it.

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