Why we need a Labor Party

Dec. 2019 Shop & stop (Nicole Leonard:Conn. Public Radio)By JOE HUTCH

This talk was originally given at a forum following the Stop and Shop strike in May 2019.

I want to talk today about the importance of the Stop and Shop strike and how it inspired my coworkers. I also want to talk about the direction of the labor movement now that we’re moving into a period in which there were more workers on strike in 2018 than at any time since 1986.

First, I’d like to bring up the question of working-class independence. That means independence from the Democrats and Republicans, the two parties that pass laws and in general govern in the interests of the capitalists, our bosses. In the U.S. the bosses have two parties and workers don’t even have one!

Workers need a party of their own. We need a political instrument to advance the class struggle. Workers need a Labor Party rooted in democracy and in the rising union militancy—the type of rising militancy we can see unfolding now, across the U.S., from teachers to hotel workers, to nurses, to Stop and Shop. Workers need a Labor Party because the ruling elite, the capitalists, are a sadistic class of abusers. They are manipulative and they have a lot of tricks, and many workers internalize and accept the bosses’ narrative and their tricks as the facts of life.

In Connecticut, one might make the argument that the Democrats have workers’ best interest in mind. Someone might say, “Look—the Connecticut House and Senate passed a bill, and the governor has promised to sign it, and it will make the minimum wage $15 an hour by 2023!”

Yes, $15 per hour is an increase for workers that the labor movement lobbied the Democrats hard for—but it’s not enough. The reality is that if we were keeping minimum wage increases consistent with the cost of living, a real minimum wage would be around $30 per hour. We’re living today by 1960s standards. That would be like a worker in the 1960s living by the standards of the 1920s.

A full-time worker earning a $15 an hour minimum wage earns just $31,200 annually. In Stamford, one of the most expensive areas in the country, that is not enough to live on. It’s not enough to live in Hartford or really anywhere, unless you have roommates, or live with an extended family who is working two or three jobs. With a $15 an hour minimum wage, you will still be living in poverty. We need at least $30 per hour.

A Labor Party would put this initiative front and center and mobilize millions of workers in the streets to demand a national minimum wage of $30 per hour or more. While we were at it, we’d call for six-hour workdays, with no reduction in pay. Let’s get two hours of our day back to spend with our family and friends or pursue our own interests.

Also, with all that’s happening in Alabama with harsher abortion laws, we need a Labor Party to defend Roe v. Wade and to extend abortion rights and access to millions of women. It shouldn’t have shocked me, yet I was still shocked to read a the following from data collected in 2014 from a study by the Guttmacher institute: “Despite the fact that a significant number (1 in 4) of people with a uterus in the U.S. will have an abortion in their lifetime, 90% of counties in the U.S. do not have a known abortion clinic and many states only have one.”

A Labor Party with a leadership of rank-and-file union health-care workers and allies in the women’s movement would mobilize millions like they did in Poland to shut down anti-abortion laws. Or like they did in Ireland to win the right to abortion. And now a year afterward, abortion will be made free and more accessible in Ireland. On a related note, the struggle still continues, as women and people with uteruses in Northern Ireland still under British occupation have lived under a similar law to the one passed in Alabama since 1861! Elizabeth Nelson writes in The Guardian, “We have been criminalized. We have been threatened and prosecuted. We have been shamed. We have been forced to travel to Great Britain to access the basic health care we should get at home.”

A fighting Labor Party would also extend solidarity to the movement in Argentina for abortion rights and against femicide. The Labor Party would extend solidarity to the women’s movement in France, Spain, and everywhere across the globe where women and people with uteruses are struggling to control their own bodies.

A Labor Party would also put the environmental struggle at the top of our “to do” list. We’d work with groups like Trade Unionists for Energy Democracy, and we’d put together a plan to democratize the energy grid. The Labor Party would fight to put the energy grid under public ownership and at the same time convert that grid to sustainable forms of energy. Equally important to the fight for public ownership under workers control of the energy grid would be extending and improving energy services to rural areas, and at the same time maintaining and even increasing good paying union jobs.

There are many important issues that a Labor Party can put on the agenda. This talk doesn’t have time today to go over what a full program for the party. But we could also talk about a Labor Party program that would address issues like immigration, opening, the borders, releasing all those incarcerated for immigration violations, full amnesty and even reparations for families torn apart by the U.S. government.

And speaking of reparations, a Labor Party would address issues facing Black communities like police terror, mass incarceration, and the school to prison pipeline. We would most certainly put reparations for Black communities that have not seen justice since Black people were first brought to this country on slave ships working for the profit of white slave owners in every state in this country, including Connecticut.

I want to specifically include in this discussion LGBTQIA+ issues because this year we are celebrating the anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion and because I don’t think the labor movement has done enough to address the rights of transgender workers in particular. According to federal data collected in 2016, 1.4 million workers identify as transgender. Surveys show—and again I think this number may be low—that one out of four transgender people are victims of assault. Suicides in the transgender community are outrageously high and so is workplace discrimination. A Labor Party would not shy away from this fight. A Labor Party through the leadership of its transgender members would go back in to their shops and organize the fight for transgender liberation on the shop floor.

Even though the Equality Act legislation has passed in the House of Representatives, the Democrats have done little to defend the interests of the LGBTQIA+ community. Marriage equality isn’t enough. The failure to pass the Employee Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA was a betrayal. In fact in most states there are no specific laws that prohibit the discrimination if you are LGBTQIA+.

Alone, divided, in our own unions and fighting for our own economic demands, we are weak. But trade unionists organized into a Labor Party, even with low union density, could shake the foundations of capitalism in the U.S., one of the most powerful economic and military countries in the world.

Organizing is not easy. I learned that trying to form a union where I work. You have to be really prepared to dig in with your coworkers and have some difficult conversations. Yet I’m optimistic. If we’re speaking in terms of the working class, I’m completely guilty of having hope and confidence that working people in their masses will be the driving force that ends their own exploitation and oppression. But we can’t do that with out getting organized, and the type of organization we need is a political party.

I’m also guilty of having a wild imagination for all the possibilities that exist to transform society. Workers need to have a lot of imagination to be in this fight. That creative spark has been dampened over years because we’ve been thinking for too long in the way our bosses want us to think. But once the switch is flipped and workers take on the struggle against their bosses as their own, they can begin to imagine something beyond our immediate economic needs. We can move from economic struggle to political struggle.

If you consider yourself a class-conscious person and fighter for social justice, then you have a responsibility to help others develop their imagination. You have to be like an eye doctor and help people develop their vision. You have to hold up the corrective lens of class struggle. As workers we know and understand all the hardships, some of us more than others. What we don’t always see is the way forward.

We have to imagine the possibilities when unconstrained by the oppression of capitalism. We have to understand with every cell in our body that almost anything is possible with the collective power of the working class. When the entire class is working to find solutions there are no limits to what we can accomplish.

Today I see a situation in which workers are getting ready to fight from Connecticut to California and everywhere around the world. There are now more workers in the world than at any other time in history.

And workers are linking up in ways we’ve never seen before. Global fast food strikes, global strikes against Walmart; in 2011 Egyptians showed solidarity with striking workers in Wisconsin and vice a versa. Just the other day, I was on a video conference call from my phone with hotel workers in Bali about our experiences in Stamford and how they relate to their efforts to build a militant volunteer organizing team. Our ability to communicate and share experiences today is unprecedented. I may be an optimist, but I recognize the difficult struggle ahead in turning a growing number of actions into a movement that can transform society in the interests of workers and the oppressed.

Workers are constantly moving in these small unseen collective ways. For example, we pool our money and play Powerball with our coworkers. That’s a funny thing right there. Powerball, the lottery. On a very basic level we understand that collectively pooling our money together gives us a better chance of winning. It doesn’t guarantee we’ll win but it gives us a better chance. And say a group of workers does win the lottery. The idea is that those winnings will be split up evenly among the workers who purchased a ticket. Everywhere I’ve been employed workers have pulled their resources in some way to try and come out ahead. Whether it’s the lottery or something more social like a Tanda, which is an informal loan club that is pretty widespread in immigrant communities.

The lottery and informal loan clubs offer workers very little in return, but I’m using the example to show how working people on a very tiny basic level have a fundamental understanding that collective action and equitable distribution of gains from collective action is, in general, the method we use to overcome our material circumstances.

Now I’d like to apply that same thinking to the Stop and Shop Strike. The strike teaches us one important lesson: That workers who are ready to fight and take on the most powerful bosses can really pack a collective punch. I believe the strike could have won more. Maybe I’m wrong but I think the strike under the right circumstances could have delivered a $30 an hour starting wage.

For example, hotel room attendants at the Hilton Hartford just last year won a $20 an hour starting wage by the end of their next contract. And they didn’t even have to strike. They did picket the hell out of the hotel, and our comrades were there walking the line in solidarity. These workers even took the bold step and voted to throw out their contract, which didn’t give them enough. That’s a dangerous thing to do, but they wanted the option of striking if need be.

I’d be willing to bet that the company that owns the Hartford Hilton isn’t worth nearly as much money as the Dutch outfit Ahold Delhaize, which owns Stop and Shop. The amount of labor and community support was incredible. And this included my union Local 217 Unite Here, which passed a resolution pledging strike solidarity and built a May 1st rally with the UFCW local 371 and 919 as sponsors.

With a Labor Party we could have mobilized hundreds of thousands of workers across the country to help build a strong fund to support the 31,000 workers on strike, a fund that would last as long as we needed it too. A Labor Party could have built massive picket lines, with which the company would have lost not just 75% of business but 100% because people would dare not cross them. A Labor Party could have organized union bus drivers to make special trips for people who walked to the store to find out there was a strike. We could have set up markets for local farmers and subsidized the costs so striking workers could take home healthy food to their families. There are a lot of possibilities.

There have been a lot of attempts over the years to build a Labor Party independent of the Democrats and Republican parties. One of the earliest attempts found its roots here in Connecticut with the International Machinists Union and here I’m quoting an article I found on the Connecticut Digital Newspaper projects: “The context was World War I. The International Association of Machinist leaders in Connecticut were upset with the lack of support from both the Democratic Party and the ‘pure and simple trade unionist’ leadership of the American Federation of Labor for their war-time strike of the munitions industry. They marked the end of their work stoppage with the launch of a new political party with an explicitly pro-labor program and base. Historian Stanley Shapiro said of the Bridgeport activists, ‘President Wilson’s use of executive power to force the arms and munitions makers there back to work moved the strikers to enter politics in self-defense; the favorable settlement persuaded them that their prospects were good’” (p. 410).

The article continues: “According to the news accounts in Connecticut newspapers, the party platform included the restoration of the right of free speech and assembly that had been abrogated during the war, the establishment of a public works program to provide employment to returning soldiers and laid off munitions workers, public ownership of public utilities, democratic control of industry, equal rights for men and women, and the abolition of the right of the government to declare war without a referendum of the entire voting population.”

Even though there were five chapters of the party in Connecticut and a national push for a Labor Party convention, the timing was not right, and the Labor Party was never fully realized. There were several more attempts, including in 1996 with the leadership of Tony Mazzochi, who was the president of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers and is now sadly deceased.

Even with the 1997 UPS Teamster strike and a general upswing in labor activity, again there was not a real mass base for the movement. That doesn’t mean the idea is dead. We have a real shot a building a Labor Party today. But we need to lay the foundation. That means building a base. That means going back to your unions and campuses and starting study circles where you discuss the Labor Party and class independence.

In a recent article on the 1996 Labor Party effort, the author, who knew Tony Mazzochi, said that Mazzochi used to have a general principle that “if you can’t get it passed in your own union hall, don’t bring it to a broader organization.” What he’s saying is that there is no shortcut to building the movement we want. We have to build our base. You can talk yourself blue in the face with all the right ideas but if you don’t have the material base—meaning the workers to back it up—then you have very little. We need to take advantage of every moment like the Stop and Shop strike, where workers are tuned into the class struggle, and insert this perspective.

Photo: Nicole Leonard / Connecticut Public Radio

 

 

 

 

 

 

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