The Labor Party, founded in 1996, was the last major effort to form a workers’ party in the United States. Its shortcomings were multifaceted and its official dissolution several years ago has made it impossible to correct these shortcomings. But it has given us a touchstone by which to elaborate what needs to happen for the construction of a legitimate and successful working-class political party.
A Party of Struggle, Not an Electoral Party
Running labor-friendly candidates in elections (at any or all levels) simply can’t be the mode of operation of a workers’ party. It must be an organizer of the working-class, its general organizing center, serving as a living resource for workers in all phases of their lives and on all possible fronts of struggle.
The easiest way to imagine it is asking a co-worker or neighbor what social, political or economic problem keeps them up at night or pisses them off the most—
“My landlord won’t fix the boiler in my building”
“My wages are so low that I can’t afford the co-pays on my prescriptions”
“I’ve heard that employers have been cooperating with ICE agents and many people have been arrested, I’m afraid of being detained and held for deportation and my family won’t know what happened to me”
“My boss makes unwanted advances when no one else is around and I’m afraid I’ll be fired if I say anything”
“We heard that they’re going to close the plant at the end of the year”
Then acting to assist them, at all levels; from the smallest and most local struggle involving only 1 worker to the largest struggles on the national and international terrains.
It’s the obligation of the workers’ party to unify all forms of workers’ organization, all forms of workers’ struggle, into one cohesive whole: a culture of workers’ resistance to capitalism.
The workers’ party must be a resource as well as a network of resources, capable of assisting or organizing or sustaining tenant associations, union organizing campaigns, legal defense efforts for immigrant workers, anti-fascist mobilizations, strikes and lock-outs and every other form and facet of the struggles of labor.
That means being capable of offering not just moral and financial support, but most importantly, boots on the ground as new struggles arise, with members from a diverse cross-section of the working-class walking each other’s picket lines, marching in each other’s demonstrations and supporting the direct action necessary to win such struggles. It doesn’t matter if that means helping 5 restaurant workers fight against wage theft or organizing a mass mobilization against “right-to-work” laws, because that is the mode of operation of the workers’ party.
None of this precludes electoral tactics. It just precludes an electoral strategy. In the big picture, electoral politics is merely 1 front among a multitude of fronts upon which workers are forced to fight to defend themselves and advance their interests.
In the early days of the workers’ movement, it was recognized that successful electoral activity could only bring about temporary victories at best or dead-letter-laws at worst. Without the organization to enforce and defend these gains, they vanish when the general political climate changes, or even when 1 elected official –a ‘friend of labor’– is replaced with another who is less pliable to our interests.
A Real Alternative, Not ‘the same, but a little better’
From the time it was founded in 1895 up until the 1970’s, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) – the main trade union center in France– had the following as Article 1 in its statutes:
“The C.G.T. is to group, without distinction of political, philosophical and religious opinions, all organizations composed of wage laborers conscious of the struggle to eliminate wage-labor and employers and desirous of defending their moral, material, economic and professional interests.”
Of course, the CGT did not live up to its own Article 1. But it’s instructive. It demonstrates that workers used to know what our ultimate position is and must be, even if we haven’t been able to make it a reality yet.
Immediate demands cannot be the full content of our program; how could they be?
Do we really and truly just want an unfettered right to strike, universal healthcare, card-check union recognition, stronger discrimination and civil rights protections, a $15/hour minimum wage, greater regulation of corporations and more funding for public education?
Is that the content of a truly human existence?
If that entire program were put into practice, racial and gender discrimination in all their forms would still exist; but their most visible manifestations would be mildly mitigated.
If that entire program were put into practice, millions more workers would benefit from unionization; but many more millions still would not.
If that entire program were put into practice, we would still live in a society based on the exploitation of labor to produce profit; but the most obvious and odious manifestations of this exploitation would be made less visible.
For decades, the best we could expect from a workers’ party program was a program defined by immediate demands and nothing more. In other words, the same as the status quo, but a little better for more people.
Instead, we must proclaim the only legitimate alternative to capitalism: the abolition of wage-labor.
We must stand by the old formula of the present amelioration and future emancipation of the working-class as the program of the workers’ party.
The workers’ party has one basic function: to act as a representative of the whole working-class.
What that looks like in practice is supporting and organizing the growing-over of struggles from one terrain to another, mediated by and through the workers’ party.
That means working to move a struggle in the electoral arena into the workplace. This looks like resistance to anti-immigrant and anti-union legislation, Medicaid cuts, sales tax increases, voter suppression (voter ID) laws– all forms of legislation that negatively affect the working and living conditions of workers. This move from the electoral arena into the workplace can look like agitating for workers engaged in a strike or organizing campaign to take up political demands. In all cases, such electoral issues are directly related to the workplace and workplace struggles.
Opposition to voter ID laws is directly related to the struggle against employer discrimination, opposition to anti-immigrant legislation is directly related to the economic struggles of immigrant workers, etc. Making the connection between broad attacks on the parliamentary terrain and specific attacks within 1 workplace, 1 trade, 1 employer, 1 industry or 1 region is how a workers’ party can begin with a struggle in the electoral arena and move it onto the economic terrain, into the workplace.
Attacks on workers in the form of legislation results in very broad attacks. By making the connection between such broad attacks on the whole working-class with the specific attacks a group of workers experience personally with their employer, begins to make the connection that the concern of one is the concern of all, that an injury to one is an injury to all.
It also means working to move a struggle on the economic terrain, in the workplace, onto the terrain of social reproduction. Whenever and however workers begin to take over social functions for and by themselves, the workers’ party must be there to support such efforts and work to generalize and deepen them.
In the case of the public school workers’ strikes across the country in 2018, we saw school teachers, custodians, nurses, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others organizing food collection and distribution for the duration of the strikes. These efforts were coordinated through a combination of existing organizations (trade unions) and new networks that emerged as part of the struggle.
Since so many children of working-class families are dependent on the free or subsidized lunches– and in many cases, breakfasts as well– provided in public schools, the workers recognized a social need that arose as a result of their strike. The workers then determined to meet that need themselves as a facet of their struggle.
That is what moving a struggle on the economic terrain, in the workplace, onto the terrain of social reproduction, is. A workers’ party, as a resource and network of resources, must foster and bolster such efforts which train our fellow workers how to organize a new society based on meeting needs rather than on the production of profit.
Such work can provide a foundation upon which to expand its purpose and its scale: starting with food collection and distribution to school children, a workers’ party could have worked to expand this to food collection, distribution and preparation for all the vulnerable groups and the most impoverished fractions of the working-class.
It also means moving struggles on the economic terrain into generalized struggles on the political terrain. The fights for comprehensive health care and retirement security affect the whole working-class but have been primarily fought at the level of single workplaces, employers, trades, industries and sectors. In the case of the public school workers’ strike in West Virginia, the workers demanded that a tax be levied on energy company profits to fund the workers’ health care.
Organizing around such slogans brings the workers together as a class by moving the demand from the economic terrain of workplace-based struggle into a general political struggle of class against class.
The capitalists raise sales taxes to make the working-class pay for business tax cuts and subsidies for the benefit of all business owners. When workers demand that profits be taxed to pay for goods and services to meet fundamental needs, it raises the relation of workers to each other and their combined shared interest against their common enemy.
It also means moving struggles in 1 workplace, trade, industry, sector or region into other struggles happening at the same time.
It could take the form of organizing the logistics to have workers walk each other’s picket lines, agitating for workers on strike to take up each other’s demands or taking up strike fund collections in other local workplaces.
The Fight For 15 movement has been and still is uniting workers across the country, across all trades, industries and sectors, around the same demand for a minimum living wage and the right to representation. Working to unify such general movements with specific struggles is another facet of this movement of unifying workers’ struggles.
That might be working to move a struggle on the legal terrain, such as resistance to the Janus v. AFSCME case or resistance to voter suppression, onto the economic terrain, by giving support to the North Carolina public workers who are fighting to overturn General Statute 95-98 that makes public employee unionism illegal in that state and to the fast food workers who have linked their struggle for a higher standard of living with the struggle against the oppression of the black community.
In everything that it does, the workers’ party has one unique and specific trait: it always speaks and acts in the interests of the whole working-class. It does so by always working to escalate and generalize labor’s class struggles. This is accomplished by providing tangible assistance and resources to particular struggles so that they may not only achieve their stated aims– like the West Virginia public workers’ demands for raises and a fix to PEIA, like the Frontier workers’ demands for job security and infrastructure upgrades, like the North Carolina public workers’ demand to legalize their labor organizations– but become struggles which advance the strategic interests of the working-class in its ultimate struggle against capitalism.
This is accomplished by not only cultivating, nurturing and organizing this growing-over in labor’s class struggles, but making the connections between this class struggle and this growing-over to the real movement toward the abolition of wage-labor.
Socialism has to be synonymous with the abolition of wage-labor (like it used to be). Otherwise it’s just a phrase describing the status quo, but a little better for more people.
On Our Own, But Not by Ourselves
Sometimes we’re told that workers must do things for themselves. This usually implies that we make due without our only weapon: organization. The problem isn’t too much organization stifling us, but too little!
In the old days, workers’ parties built and maintained large and strong networks of support, fraternal and specialized organizations for a variety of purposes. Foreign language federations and cultural associations for immigrant workers, independent legal defense funds for the inevitable charges and legal costs associated with strikes, boycotts, lock-outs, etc., numerous publications covering a variety of subjects (news, opinion, humor, history, art), practical services to members and the like.
The International Workingmen’s Association—the First International—regrouped workers in all forms of organization and supported them on as many fronts as possible. The first line in the Provisional Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association said:
“This Association is established to afford a central medium of communication and co-operation between workingmen’s societies existing in different countries and aiming at the same end; viz., the protection, advancement, and complete emancipation of the working classes”
No one form of labor organization is sufficient to carry out all the tasks required by labor’s struggles. There must be a deliberate effort at unifying the purpose of all existing organizations and those that will arise in the future.
We have a long history of doing what we must do, and we must do it again. Our collective history is the story of why we need organization, and more organization, and more organization still, to successfully defend our existing conditions today, demand improvements tomorrow and accomplish our collective program of the abolition of wage-labor the day after that.
A workers’ party is made through the independent initiative and guided activity of its members in their daily lives. It’s the construction of a culture of resistance within the working-class that refuses to accept the status quo as the best there is in life—and organizes to change things.