What Happened to the Labor Party?

And, Why Should We Care?

In the 1990s, hundreds of US labor activists came together to form the Labor Party. The initiative was the brainchild of Tony Mazzocchi, the passionate leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (which, after two mergers, is today part of the United Steelworkers).

Mazzocchi held true to the dream of an independent political party rooted in the labor movement over which working people would have ownership. He was fond of saying: “The bosses have two parties. We need one of our own.”

Dereck Siedman interviews Marc Dudzic:

 Historically, labor has been committed to the Democrats, and Mazzocchi recognized a problem here: unions won’t abandon the Democrats for a labor party that can’t promise victory and may be an electoral spoiler. But at the same time, it would be impossible to build a labor party that could compete electorally if it didn’t have the support of unions. What was the Labor Party’s strategy for confronting this dilemma?

Mark Dudzic:

Our party-building model was premised on the understanding that you cannot have a party of labor that does not have at the table a substantial portion of the actually-existing labor movement. The Labor Party had to start with the assurance that it wouldn’t play spoiler politics and that it would focus on building the critical mass necessary for serious electoral intervention.

This was easier to envision in the political context of the 1990s where the Democratic Party was clearly aligning itself with a neoliberal, anti-worker agenda, and the labor movement was struggling with how to overcome decades of decline and regain the offensive. It was not inconceivable that a trade union movement that was organizing a million workers a year and confronting corporate power in the workplace would throw its weight behind an effort to build a class-based political movement.

The strategic defeat of this effort to revitalize the labor movement changed the political calculus. By the early years of the new millennium, most unions had reverted to a survival mode that precluded the embrace of transformative efforts like the Labor Party.

Let’s go a little deeper into this question of elections, because it was one of the crucial issues within the Labor Party. Some party activists disagreed with the official position to wait on elections until you could legitimately compete. They said, basically, if you’re a party, you run in elections anyways to spread your ideas, build support, and justify your existence. How would you respond to this? If the Labor Party wasn’t going to be an actual electoral party until it built up a base, should it have remained something else, something less than a party? And if so, base-building and expanding your constituency without becoming a party could take years, even decades. Is it possible to sustain that kind of grassroots effort, the energy, morale, unity, excitement, and so on, without running in elections?


First of all, in retrospect, I think it was premature for us to coalesce into a party formation without an understanding of how we would relate to elections. That was a problem. And again, it was because of the rapid growth of the Labor Party movement, which was connected to the broader rapid growth of the revitalized expectations around the labor movement overall. Leaders like Mazzocchi were really trying to put a damper on the demand to move from Labor Party Advocates to a full-blown party, but it sort of ran away from us. So yes, that is a problem.

But secondly, my experience with elections is that they’ve been very disempowering. They haven’t really been a way to organize or raise issues. Without a permanent, structural presence that goes beyond elections, they leave very little in their wake.

You get all excited and you mobilize a base around an individual campaign. But it disappears when that individual loses, or worse when they gain power and you have no effective way to use that office and hold that person accountable. And they drift off into some kind of sell-out structure.

I’ve been involved in the Jesse Jackson movement — in fact, in New Jersey they established some longer-term institutional presences, some other candidates over time — but they rarely leave much behind them beyond the initial excitement of the person. So I’m not sure that’s an effective way to build a permanent organization.

And then I would say, really, when we struggled with this issue — and I think we came out with a really brilliant understanding of what it would take to have an electoral presence — we never shut the door to electoral activity. We said we would run candidates who are accountable to the Labor Party when we had any constituency where we had the capacity to run a credible election.

This meant that you had to have a substantial support from the labor movement in that constituency. It didn’t have to be unanimous, but it had to show that you had substantial support. You had to show that you had the capacity to run an election down to the precinct level, show that you had that kind of serious organizing capacity, and that you had structures in place to hold that candidate accountable to that constituency. I think that’s what it would take to run a real candidate.

Anything else is just kind of self-serving, a Green Party–type model. If you can’t even put out enough poll watchers to cover every precinct in an election campaign, and you can’t call on a substantial portion of the labor movement to come out and support your candidate, you’re not building anything, and there’ll be little that remains afterwards.

So I think one of the biggest contributions that the Labor Party’s experience has made is in thinking about elections and what it would take to run effective candidacies in elections.

Recommended. Read the entire piece at Jacobin:


The interview originally appeared in New Labor Forum.


3 Responses

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  2. The problem with the labor party of the 90’s was that it was trying to build its base among the established labor movemnet, the 12%. I thing the labor party initiative would find more fertile ground among the unorganized, the 88%. I say we abandon all but the reformers of the AFL-CIO, and consentrate our party building among the unorganized labor and community groups of the 88%.

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