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
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,"
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
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.
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
- Jim Cullen
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