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If Voting Could Change Things ... The Labor Party Illusion

By Jon Bekken - Industrial Worker (November 1991)

Growing numbers of our fellow workers have understandably concluded that the Democratic and Republican parties both serve the same interests­that there's not a dime's worth of difference between them.

The evidence for this is overwhelming. Democrats have controlled the Congress (and most of the states) for decades, during which living standards have been eroded, our unions busted, our health undermined, our taxes raised, and our rights curtailed. The Democrats share the Republicans' bloodthirsty foreign policy. And it was the Democratic Congress that outlawed the railroad workers' strike a few months ago.

So it's long past time to give up on the Democrats-they have nothing to offer but blood, sweat and tears (for us), and tax breaks and subsidies for the bosses.

New political parties are springing up like weeds. Many unionists have signed up with Tony Mazzochi's Labor Party Advocates, which hopes to build a labor party based on local and national union piecards. (Trotskyists are trying to form labor parties as well.) The National Organization For Women has announced that it is organizing a women's party.

And environmentalists are diverting their energies from educational and direct action campaigns to organizing a Green Party.

So why should we care? The Industrial Workers of the World, after all, has always refrained from supporting political parties and candidates. Individual members are free to join whatever party (or none) they choose, so long as they keep their political affiliations out of the union. But the solution to unemployment, war, hunger and other social problems does not lie in politics; direct action 'offers a more effective, simpler, more empowering way to build a better world.

U.S. workers have been afflicted by dozens of labor parties in the last century -- none of which have done us any good. The American Socialist Party elected two congressmen, dozens of state legislators and several city administrations earlier in the century. This presented the edifying spectacle of socialist constables throwing striking workers in jail.

After the first world war, the Chicago Federation of Labor threw its substantial resources into organizing a local and national labor party. Several union members got their start in politics as a result, but the working class gained nothing.

And a great many politicians (including former union members such as Ronald Reagan) have been elected as "friends of labor" to this day, only to reward their union supporters with betrayals-as during the recent Hormel and Phelps-Dodge strikes.

In 1935 the AFL Convention nearly voted to establish a Labor Party. In the debate AFL Vice-President Matthew Wohl, himself a first-rate conniver, argued: "I have watched these politicians in our movement. ... Regardless of how they talk of their trade union loyalty, my experience has been that when they enter the political arena they begin to talk like politicians, and very soon thinking like politicians, to the desertion of every trade union activity they pledged them­selves to become part of."
Labor parties have never governed the u.s. But their counterparts have had ample opportunity around the world to demonstrate their true colors.

New Zealanders recently voted their Labour Party out of government after years of austerity for workers, give-aways and tax breaks for the rich, and soaring unemployment. In Australia, Labour and conservative provincial governments compete to prove which has the most heartless policies towards government workers, the unemployed and the poor.

Local British Labour administrations evict unemployed workers who refused (or were unable) to pay the recently repealed Poll Tax. When the Labour Party was in power it sent troops to break strikes, froze wages, allowed nuclear weapons to be stationed in Britain, and generally toadied to the capitalists.

Spanish workers are fighting against austerity programs developed by their "Socialist" government. The "socialist" Sandinistas outlawed strikes and used thugs to take over independent unions. The French Socialists briefly flirted with pro-labor policies, but quickly capitulated when the corporations threatened to move to more congenial shores.

The political arena is a swamp. It is impossible for any political "labor" party to gain power without concessions to business and the middle class (even if the piecards upon whom this party is to be built were not thoroughly reactionary). Political action can only serve to divide our forces, and to divert our efforts from more productive efforts.

The eight-hour day, for example, was not won by legislation. It had been established decades before it was signed into law by union organization. Unemployment insurance was established as a sop to block unions' efforts to win the six-hour day. Minimum wage rates have always lagged far behind the average wages workers have won through our own efforts.

Labor's strength lies in our economic power-in the fact that we do all the work that keeps this society operating. Electioneering diverts our energies away from militant, direct-action struggles into essentially counter-revolutionary channels. It undermines confidence in our most effective weapon, our economic power.

An unorganized working class, determined to use its power, can compel an end to the destruction of our planet and the impoverishment of our fellow workers through its own efforts, without any reliance on political action. A U.S. labor party will merely increase the numbers of parasites in our movement, and help the piecards divert attention from their bankrupt policies. So long as we remain unorganized we will continue to lose ground to the bosses. Next time someone asks you to help build the labor party, suggest they consider revolutionary industrial unionism instead. The new society can be built only through our own efforts.