NOVEMBER 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 11
L A B O R
A Challenge to the One Party State
The Need for a Labor Party?by Samantha Sparks
* * *
"Beaten! Whipped! Smashed! ... Our followers scattered like dew before the rising sun."Labor Activist Tony Mazzochi believes that the talk about creating a third political party misses the point. What is really needed, he contends, is a second party: one that represents interests other than those of multinational corporations and those concerned about their capital gains. "By squinting just a little," Mazzochi wrote in this magazine nearly three years ago, "it is clear that the United States is a one party society."
While it is easy to be cynical about the notion of a new, alternative party, it is equally difficult to deny that there is a great void in the current political system. On economic matters, Democrats are often virtually indistinguishable from Republicans. It is well-financed constituent interests and not party affiliation which shape voting by elected officials. Where foreign policy issues are concerned, elected officials in the United States speak with one voice. Who but a few mavericks had the gumption even to suggest that the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 was a farce? This "bipartisanship" (actually monopartisanship) also prevails in U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, Panama and the Soviet Union.
A recent poll of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers' union reflects workers' profound dissatisfaction with this state of political affairs. Nearly 50 percent believe neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party best represents the interests of working people. Nearly 66 percent believe that both parties care more about big business. And nearly 53 percent agree that it is time for organized labor to build a new party of working people. Other national unions are in the process of conducting similar polls and expect to see similar results. Support for a third party is evident, in polls such as these.
Still, throughout U.S. history alternative political parties have failed to break the Democratic/Republican electoral stranglehold--though not for lack of trying. The Prohibition Party has made the longest run of it, starting in 1872 with an anti-liquor platform and continuing to this day, briefly changing its name and adding religious liberty and anti-abortion rights planks to its cause. The Socialist Labor Party held its own on national tickets from 1892 through 1972 and there are several others: the Anti-Masons in 1836, the Greenbacks and the Populists at the turn of the century and the People's Party of 1976, just to name a few.
The trouble with all these parties, including the ones in existence today, is that while they have had some success in shaping national and local debate, they have not had a broad and lasting base.
Tony Mazzochi believes that a workers' party can make a difference in the way people think and vote. The party, as he explains below, would not begin by posting leaders to stand for office. Instead, it would work to create a movement, nurturing a new kind of political thought that would challenge establishment politics, including the labor bureaucracy itself.
Tony Mazzochi is secretary-treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union.
MULTINATIONAL MONITOR: How can you organize a labor party when there isn't really a labor movement to speak of in this country?
TONY MAZZOCHI: Organized labor has still got 14 or 15 million people out there. It's got incredible resources at its disposal. Not that this labor party will be formed from the top of the movement. It's a labor party that would be supported, I believe, from the local level on down and that's an enormous base to start from. First of all, people are organized. Secondly, they're geographically dispersed.
This is a process that is going to take some time since it's non-electoral. It's got to begin to define itself [and ] begin to develop an agenda. And then it's got to pursue that agenda. We're years away from a party that moves for electoral power. Organizing is always a monumental task.
MM: Is there a risk that the party would be viewed as a "special interest" union party and not attract non-union members?
MAZZOCHI: No, I don't see that. I think the agenda will speak for itself. [It] is a social agenda which would really be speaking to broad issues: national health care, wages, job security. These are issues which affect everybody.
MM: What about the fact that a lot of union members, even those who don't identify themselves as Republicans, voted for Reagan and Bush?
MAZZOCHI: There aren't that many people voting to start with. And I can understand even those people who voted for Bush, given that there weren't any options. But I think that we would attract those people. The 50 percent who don't vote are mostly alienated but you're never going to attract all the people.
MM: What are your strategies for attracting people who have not voted for many years?
MAZZOCHI: We wouldn't start by attracting people to vote. I think the people who don't vote have conducted a sophisticated analysis, although they may not think of it in those terms. If they were in Eastern Europe when you got a chance to vote for none of the above, they would be voting for none of the above. What's going to attract them is a program that speaks to their needs.
MM: Have you spelled out that program?
MAZZOCHI: No, that's something that's got to be spelled out with the people we enlist. I am absolutely adamant on a program that comes up from down below, [that] is not imposed on people from the top. The program is going to evolve through discussion with the rank and file. I still think the best and brightest people out there will be interested in having this party as their intellectual base.
MM: Job security and wages are the main problems that working people want to see addressed, but these problems have a lot to do with international forces, perhaps beyond even elected politicians' control.
MAZZOCHI: But if you don't deal with those issues, the others are irrelevant. For the first time, working people in this country have to think in transnational terms. Our program has to deal with that.
MM: Do you see a conflict between the shop floor issues, which the union people would want to address in their political party, and the non-shop floor issues which others in the party might want to see addressed?
MAZZOCHI: No, because I think that the shop floor issues rarely will get articulated in a political vein. I think what the politics would do is empower people to make a lot of moves on the shop floor. [We could have] a political program that empowers people to act, for instance, on occupational health and safety. The government has all these federal inspectors; I think the inspectors' duties should pass to the workers in every single facility. Legislation would empower people to act on their own It would empower the community to have their own inspectors too. So I think the community would have a common interest with the workers, in their ability to intervene in that part of the productive process which involves public health.
MM: Can you give other examples of empowerment?
MAZZOCHI: Labor law. In order to have a level playing field, a repeal of Taft-Hartley would be high on our agenda. [The law] has certainly shackled workers all over the country. More workers would be in unions if the law wasn't so stacked against them. First of all, if you file for an election, it takes years and years. It's not like the European system, where, if you sign one person up, you practically have a union.
People vote for unions, it's just that we have a winner take all system. American elections demonstrate that, probably more than anywhere else in the world. If 35 percent of people vote for a union here, you get beat. In Europe, you have a whole different legal system that grew out of a political process in which workers have some say.
MM: What levers would the labor party, as a non-electoral party, use?
MAZZOCHI: It has a lot of levers. If the people are in motion around a set of proposals they feel would advance their interest, they would frame the issues and they would force existing legislators, regardless of their party, to react to that. I'm for a party that begins to create a tempo, that changes the nature of the political dialogue and ultimately, will vie for electoral office. But that's way down the line.
MAZZOCHI: Because we're not ready for that. To run candidates today and have them defeated would totally demoralize any group. That's the history of third parties. Plus, I think developing an agenda that's relevant, that can mobilize people under its flag, takes time. And purely democratic discussion takes time.
MM: What's your response to people who say that a third party would simply undercut the Democrats' chances and help the Republicans?
MAZZOCHI: We'd be non-electoral. But, anyhow, that argument doesn't move me because I don't see the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. They all want to vie for that narrow area of people who vote by adopting conservative positions. There are Democrats worth supporting and our people will support them until such time as the party is formed. Then [we will] ask them to cross them aisle.
MM: The results of your poll show continued support for Democrats.
MAZZOCHI: I think that's there, but most people think that's the majority support. Our poll and more and more [other] union polls show majority support for a labor party.
MM: Do you foresee any problems with extending the party from its union base?
MAZZOCHI: I think there are plenty of people to be included later on. I don't see any difference in the response [to polls about a labor party] from non-unionists. If you did it in a non- union context, you'd get the same answers. Most people who work are alienated from the political process and they're cynical about the existing choices that confront them.
MM: How will the party forge consensus on non-workplace issues, such as abortion?
MAZZOCHI: The party will have to draw up its own issues. The workforce is predominantly women today. The industrial workforce is minorities. That's the party's constituency, and it will develop positions based on discussions with the rank and file, not imposed from people above saying "That's not a winning formula." I'm emphatically opposed to elite structures.
MM: How would the party be financed?
MAZZOCHI: I think the members would finance it through membership dues and local unions would put money up. I think there are millions of people out there willing to spend money for a party that they think speaks for them.
MM: What's the next step?
MAZZOCHI: Probably next winter we'll bring together a group of people to talk about fundamental steps. Generally, we'll start at the local level. There' s going to be a lot of trial and error. It's a long, difficult road.
MM: Yet you sound very optimistic.
MAZZOCHI: I am optimistic. I have found in the 15 years I've been agitating on this question that people are all for it and they're more for it today.
I think we're heading into another severe recession and none of the major parties will have the answers to that. What answers they will have, will be for the protection of global corporations rather than people.
I think this is the right period to organize a new party.
And all the issues that we deal with are going to have to be resolved by working at an international level. We need a vehicle to begin thinking about it. The issues are not resolvable in any one nation.