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Issue 34, January 1999

US Labor Party convention

OVER 1,400 people gathered in Pittsburgh from 12-15 November for the First Constitutional Convention of the US Labor Party.

Delegates from 39 Labor Party chapters, 177 affiliated union locals (branches), and five 'international' unions attended the event. In addition, voting representatives came from 54 endorsing labour bodies and eight 'worker-supportive' organisations. While still a small force when measured against the rest of the US labour movement, the size and scope of the gathering provided clear evidence that the US Labor Party is well on the way to becoming a real political force. Covering the event, the New York Times noted that unions at the Convention represented more than one million members, although card-carrying Labor Party members number a little over 10,000 nationally. 'The Convention', said the Times, 'was afire with speeches about how, in the richest nation on earth, one in five children is living in poverty and one in six Americans lacks health insurance'.

The party took several positive steps. First and foremost, the Convention gave a green light to local Labor Party chapters and affiliated unions to prepare to run candidates. At the June 1996 launch of the party in Cleveland, the party had defined itself as non-electoral, at least until it had become a mass force. In a clear shift in direction, the party almost unanimously adopted the criteria for running candidates. However, the criteria ensures that the Labor Party will only launch electoral efforts that can demonstrate considerable support before the campaign gets underway. This will require a much higher level of organising than the party is able to accomplish right now, but it puts the onus on the local activists and supporting unions to get the show on the road.

  The Pittsburgh Convention also made it clear, however, that the Labor Party will not put all its eggs in the electoral basket. In fact, four new campaigns were launched that focus on one-on-one recruitment and organising around issues such as health care, workers' rights and international trade. The Labor Party's 'Just Health Care' campaign will attempt to advocate for a Canadian-style programme of universal health coverage and comes at a time when dissatisfaction with the present 'medical industrial complex' has reached new heights. Forty-three million Americans have no health coverage and countless more pay exorbitant co-payments for health services. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party have no coherent health-care proposals, and individual unions continue to protect their own members on a piecemeal basis.

Supporters of Justice, the Socialist Party's sister paper in the US, sent delegates to the Convention from several chapters and affiliated unions. More than 100 attended a successful fringe meeting that featured Dublin West TD, Joe Higgins, along with Carlos Petroni from the now Labor Party-affiliated Movement for Immigrant Rights (MDI) in San Francisco.

During the main Convention, Justice-inspired resolutions on public ownership were politely dismembered by the resolutions' committee. However, the Convention adopted a resolution that committed the party to 'an ongoing discussion of ways and means to establish democratic control of the US economy'. This language provides an important opening to all socialists and a means to advance the debate on ownership and control of the economy.

In all, the Labor Party has probably reached the end of its beginning. It will either now forge ahead or quietly fade away by the time of the next scheduled convention in early 2002. For now the signs are encouraging, but a lot rests on the capability of party activists and a small number of union leaders to develop the campaigns and take the steps necessary to run some local candidates. It is also clear that these efforts will be obstructed by the majority of unions and Central Labor Councils who are tied tightly to the two-party system. However, the road ahead remains rocky for US workers and the Labor Party is the only third-party effort equipped with a clear working-class programme and orientation.

Sean Sweeney

At the convention Sean was re-elected, unopposed, to the Labor Party national council.

For the latest news from the US, subscribe to Justice, the monthly socialist newspaper of Labor Militant.
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