Labor Party gets no respect ... yet

The founding convention of the Labor Party drew 1,367 delegates to Cleveland the weekend of June 6-8. After five years of groundwork, they were intent upon forming a political party that would have as its prime mission the advocacy of working people.

Representing more than one million voters, the delegates adopted "A Call for Economic Justice" that proposed, among other things, a constitutional amendment to guarantee every American a job at a living wage; a 32-hour work week; 20 weeks of paid vacation yearly; and a universal single-payer health program. An ambitious program, certainly, but not that far from what many Canadian and European workers already have.

If this is news to you, it is because the convention was not considered newsworthy by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the press satraps around the nation. If the Associated Press sent any dispatches, they apparently were not picked up by our hometown Austin American-Statesman. There were no billionaires in attendance, only working people and populist figures such as Jim Hightower, Jerry Brown and Ralph Nader, so the Labor Party convention passed unnoticed by Time, Newsweek and U.S. News &World Report. The Los Angeles Times advanced the convention with a fair report, but failed to follow up.

To be fair to the indifferent journalists, some union officials also have mixed emotions about the formation of a Labor Party. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who was in Cleveland for a different meeting, also snubbed the convention. He was quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer saying that "we should save the creation of a labor party to a non-presidential year."

Some activists were disappointed when the union organizers of the Labor Party got the convention to hold off on fielding candidates and competing with the Democratic Party, at least for the next two years. Elsewhere in this issue Ronnie Dugger explains why he has given up on the Democrats and will vote for Nader, the low-key candidate on the Green Party ballot in California and at least eight other states. The New Party, which has had some success at the local level, also is fielding candidates this year.

But union political strategists in the field say labor can ill afford to split its strength from the Democrats this year. "They've got to get Clinton re-elected or their ass is grass; they're out of business," said Dee Simpson, a representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Texas, of unions facing an openly hostile Republican majority. "If Clinton wins and if Congress comes back with a Democratic majority, will we be able to make meaningful changes in workers' lives and working conditions? Probably not, but if we back a Labor Party and get 10 to 15 percent of the vote, where does that leave us? Would they elect any members of Congress?" Simpson suggested that he would like to hear from a Labor Party when it is in a position to make a difference in an election, other than acting as a spoiler for Democrats. "If it doesn't plan to elect people and if it doesn't plan to take power, then what's the deal?" he asked.

If organized labor has the numbers to form a Labor Party, he said, it could just as well put those people to use reforming the Democrats. "The Democratic Party has the advantages that it is ubiquitous and influenceable," he said.

Unlike Dugger, we're not ready to dump the Democrats. Maybe we haven't been lied to enough yet. (Of course it is relatively early in the season.) But insurgent political movements such as the Greens, the New Party and the Labor Party are welcome alternatives that someday might surprise the political pundits. Until then, you can read about them in these pages.

Sincerest form of flattery

American reporters are incredulous that more than one-third of Russian voters would return to communist rule - and some even long for the "good old days" under Stalin. Poland has elected a former communist as president and communism is on the rebound in other former Soviet Bloc nations. But even as Eastern Europe reacts to "free-market reforms" that have led to the ravaging of medical care, high unemployment and a plunge into poverty for a large share of the population while a few get rich, there also is nostalgia in the United States for the good old days when there was just one phone company to deal with.

Those with longer memories can recall the days when it seemed like there was just one oil company, one railroad and one radio network. Well, those days are coming back. The Republicrats have reduced the antitrust division of the Justice Department to little more than a clerk with an "approved" stamp. That has made it possible for the Baby Bells to get back together. (Maybe that's part of their "pro-family" program.)

The Burlington Northern has joined with the Santa Fe for one big railroad and the Union Pacific wants to consolidate with the Southern Pacific, which suits Wall Street just fine but threatens to leave small towns out in the cold.

As far as we know there are still seven major oil companies, but there might as well be one.

And the new telecommunications act has loosened restrictions on monopolization of broadcast media. That allows Infinity Broadcasting and Westinghouse to merge, giving the new Westinghouse 32 percent of the nation's top markets. If all you want to hear is Howard Stern, Don Imus and the same dozen songs broadcast coast-to-coast, maybe that's good news.

With the constant march of mergers and acquisitions, we were tempted to say that the United States was heading toward a capitalist version of Soviet Russia without the gulags. Then we remembered that the United States topped one million prisoners in 1994 - triple the number incarcerated in 1980.

Represent minorities

The Supreme Court tortured logic June 13 when it threw out congressional districts that were drawn to elect minorities in Texas and North Carolina. The court found that oddly shaped districts, drawn to enable black and Hispanic voters to elect their own representatives, unlawfully disfranchised white voters who had become minorities in those districts. If race is not allowed to be taken into account in drawing districts, as the court demands, few districts with a ready black majority will remain. This predicament gives Congress an excellent reason to switch from single-member districts to a more equitable proportional representation plan.

In North Carolina, blacks comprise 24 percent of the population but none had been elected to Congress since the late 1890s, when a Populist-Republican coalition allowed a number of black Republicans to be elected. Of course a violent white supremacist reaction left blacks disfranchised throughout the South - with the tacit approval of the Supreme Court - for nearly 70 years. Even after passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, it took 27 more years before some creative drawing connected enough Carolina blacks to allow election of two black members of Congress in a 12-member delegation under the single-member district system.

In Texas, 12 percent of the population is black and enough are concentrated in Houston so that a relatively compact congressional district has sent a black representative to Congress since 1972. But it took some creative drawing in 1992 to finally send an African American from Dallas, where nearly 20 percent of the population is black. Even with creative mapping, Texas blacks are still under-represented in a 30-member delegation, and many blacks are stuck in districts ruled by white majorities. But that is of no concern to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who wrote the plurality decision that threatens to whitewash the Southern delegations once again.

Proportional representation uses multi-member "superdistricts" that allow a minority, by concentrating its votes, to elect a representative. If, for example, African Americans made up 20 percent of the voters in a five-member superdistrict, and all the blacks voted for the same candidate, that person would win one of the seats.

(If, by the same reasoning, 40 percent of the voters in a five-seat superdistrict were Republicans, a Democratic legislature would be unable to gerrymander the districts to elect five Democrats. By concentrating their votes, Republicans could expect to elect two representatives. And if 40 percent of the voters in an otherwise conservative region are progressive, shouldn't their views be represented as well?)

U.S. Rep Cynthia McKinney, a black Democrat whose own Georgia district was thrown out by the Supreme Court last fall, has introduced House Bill 2545. It would lift the 1967 law that mandates single-member congressional districts and would allow states to elect their Congressional delegations by multi-seat proportional representation. And it would largely do away with gerrymandering.

McKinney's bill won praise from, among others, Paul Jacobs, executive director of U.S. Term Limits. "This bill increases choice for states and for people, and for that reason I support this bill," Jacob said at an Oct. 26 press conference.

Unless Congress allows such a plan, it appears likely that Congress will return to its nearly all-white status and minorities will have nowhere but the streets to take their grievances. Single-member districts can't do the job.

- Jim Cullen

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