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Issue 33, December 1998

US Labor Party meets

AS BILL CLINTON'S impeachment probe gets underway in Washington, America's unions are trying to arouse some passion from their own members for Democratic candidates in this month's Congressional races. Despite some lip service in recent years to a more independent political stance, the AFL-CIO (equivalent to the TUC) and its main affiliates are still stuck in an abusive relationship with the pro-big business Democratic Party.

One bright flicker on the political horizon, however, continues to be the newly-formed US Labor Party. Defiant in its opposition to politics-as-usual, the Labor Party's National Convention meets in Pittsburgh during 12-14 November. The Labor Party developed in response to the failure over the past 20 years of the trade union movement to deal with the offensive of big business. The Democratic Party moved further to the right, implementing NAFTA, privatisation, and anti-union legislation. A small section of the unions started to look for an alternative and, in 1996, the Labor Party was launched. New unions have come towards the party recently, but progress continues to be slow - there are no obvious signs that the Labor Party will make a qualitative breakthrough in the immediate future. However, while largely invisible to the broader population, the Labor Party is becoming a signficant force in the labour movement, one that has achieved a certain stability in its first two years of existence. 'We've shown that we're here to stay', party leader Tony Mazzocchi said recently. 'Most third-party efforts are launched with great fanfare but soon collapse. They never even get to a second convention. Our institutional support is growing; we have more unions involved now than when we started'.

Certainly, the party has sunk quite solid roots in three or four national unions, but much of the labour movement remains untapped potential. With little or no media capability, the party relies on a hard-core group of activists to spread the word. Since the Founding Convention in 1996, some activists have lost patience and drifted away, citing the party's inability to grow substantially or to involve itself in a wide range of struggles and campaigns. 'It's like we're all standing outside the empty ball park', said one party member recently, 'complaining that no one's in there rooting for the team'.

  Others, however, realise that building a new working-class party will take the concerted effort of activists, trade unionists and socialists, and depends on broader changes in the consciousness of working people. In spite of all the difficulties, a thousand elected delegates have already registered from union branches and Labor Party chapters for the Pittsburgh gathering.

The main item on the agenda will be the issue of electoral politics. When the party was launched in 1996, the Founding Convention decided to keep the party non-electoral until such time as it became a mass force capable of a serious challenge to the two big business parties, the Republicans and Democrats. Since then, the Labor Party leadership has shifted its position. Last January, the party's Interim National Council (INC) adopted a report that proposes criteria for running Labor Party candidates in the coming years. The criteria attempts to ensure that any electoral initiatives on the part of the Labor Party will be carefully planned, adequately funded, and supported by a significant portion of labour and working class community organisations. As it stands now, it looks likely that the criteria will be adopted and the Labor Party will give a green light to those local party chapters who want to prepare the groundwork for electoral activity. This will give the party rank and file a lift, but much work still needs to be done.

Supporters of Justice and Labor Militant, the Socialist Party's sister organisation in the US, will be sending 30 or so elected delegates to Pittsburgh. Justice activists and other socialists are campaigning for the Labor Party to include in its programme the need for public ownership of the top financial and industrial corporations as a means of fighting the economic dictatorship of big business. One of the resolutions calls for the party to explore ways and means of ensuring democratic control of the economy by workers and their communities. Another resolution calls for the confiscation and public ownership of the assets of big corporations that threaten plant closures, blackmail workers, or pollute the environment: 'The resolution is urging the party to debate the issue in a thorough and open way. In the course of the debate, we will get a chance to explain the need for socialism', says Alan Jones, editor of Justice. 'This is especially pertinent given the present economic crisis when people will be open to new ideas'.

Sean Sweeney

Sean is a member of the Labor Party Interim National Council and Vice-chair of New York Metro Chapter.

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