This is the second of a two-part series on efforts to mobilize a new
progressive mainstream. In the February issue of The Progressive Populist,
Walt Contreras Sheasby, Co-Convenor of the State Coordinating Committee,
Green Party of California and a Green Party candidate for Congress from
Sierra Madre, traced the rise of the Right under Bill Clinton, the end of
corporate liberalism and the decay of the Democratic Party.
by WALT SHEASBY
The Reaganization of New Zealand took place in 1984 under the auspices of
the Labour Party and took the form of Finance Minister Roger Douglas' supply-side
policies-dubbed "Rogernomics." They included deregulation, privatization
and tax cuts benefiting the rich.
At first this rightward shift was opposed only by Jim Anderton, a member
of Parliament and one-time party president, who was expelled by the Labour
caucus and resigned from the Labour Party in 1989. In denouncing trade union
leaders who collaborate in this betrayal, Anderton complained, "They
support policies which, had they been implemented by a National government,
would have caused that same leadership to march in the street against them."
(New Zealand Evening Post, April 6, 1990.)
After his expulsion, Anderton approached the Greens, who were formed in
1990 and received 7.5% nationwide in elections that year, and proposed a
Green-Red Alliance of ecological activists and militant laborites. In its
first national election in 1993 the Alliance polled 18 percent of the vote,
but the winner-take-all voting system gave them only two of the 99 seats
in Parliament. However, the Alliance also pushed for a referendum on Mixed
Member Proportional Representation and that measure passed with 52 percent
of the vote. If the system, based on the German proportional representation
plan, had been in place in 1993, the Alliance would have taken at least
Peter Camejo, a Green Party activist in Oakland, Calif., says, "National
polls report that the majority of New Zealanders favor some kind of Alliance
coalition government in 1996, with a Labor-Alliance coalition the most popular
of all." (In These Times, Aug. 7, 1995.)
Polls also show that voters consider Anderton the most trusted political
figure in New Zealand. John Rensenbrink of the Green Party Network and others
have compared the strategy of the U.S. new politics movement with the development
of the New Zealand Alliance, which actually is an electoral fusion of the
New Labor Party (a rank-and-file offshoot of the rightward-moving Labor
Party), the Mana Motuhake (the Maori self-determination party), the Liberal
Party (led by former MPs of the rightward-shifting National Party), and
the Democratic Party (which has a Social Credit program), as well as the
Green Party of New Zealand (Aotearoa).
At the June 3, 1995 Washington, D.C., Summit of Third Parties '96, Rensenbrink
said, "Peter Camejo roused the participants with a description and
analysis of the founding (in December 1991) of the New Zealand Alliance
out of four small third parties, including an offshoot of the Labor Party
and the Green Party.
The manner of its coming together, the fact that it pushed successfully
for proportional representation in a winner-take-all culture and system,
and that it bids fair to win the next election (in November 1996). All of
these were much food for thought for the participants. It was an inspiration
to them to now get on with their work of seeking and creating a Declaration
of Common Ground of their own."
Labor and the social movements
Is a similar common ground between organized labor and the social movements
possible in America? The last time a serious effort was made at bringing
these social forces together was in the midst of the Vietnam War.
A high point of that alliance-building was the May 21, 1970, anti-war rally
in New York City organized by 15 labor unions with the support of anti-war
movement organizations. One of the handful of trade unionists who organized
opposition to the war was an east coast official of the Oil, Chemical, and
Atomic Workers in his late thirties named Tony Mazzocchi.
At the time, of course, the AFL-CIO leadership vocally backed the war, and
many union officials applauded the tear-gassing of student protesters. But
Mazzochi, along with a layer of younger militants, started Labor for Peace,
which brought together those trade unionists to the left of the old guns
'n butter bureaucrats.
Mazzochi, born in 1926, grew up in a union family, worked in a UAW organized
factory when he returned from the war in 1946, and then in a New Jersey
chemical plant, where he was elected president of the Oil, Chemical and
Atomic Workers (OCAW) local in 1952. He became the union's legislative director
in Washington in 1965. In 1977 he was elected vice-president, set up a think
tank, and led the effort to pass the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
He was elected to the union's number two position in 1988, but resigned
in 1991, taking a position as assistant to Bob Wages, OCAW's president.
Mazzochi is not happy with labor's retreat: "As I matured in this movement
we defined politics on our own terms. We developed our own programs, and
we insisted that candidates we supported respond to the agenda we laid out
(LRA's Economic Notes, April 1995)."
About ten years ago Mazzochi began traveling across the country, visiting
union locals, and agitating for a third party, a Labor Party. A 1988 survey
found that a majority of his union's members agreed with him. As Bob Wages
said, "Our polls consistently show that workers believe that neither
the Republicans nor the Democrats address the needs of working people and
that both parties care more about big business than they do about them."
In 1991 Mazzochi's union and a handful of other unions and locals formed
Labor Party Advocates: "My union launched Labor Party Advocates to
restore labor to the position of influence we once enjoyed. LPA's mission
is to organize an alternative to the two-party system, which has miserably
failed millions of working-class people in this country."
"I've traveled the country extensively since 1991 speaking to mostly
labor groups, and the response has been very good." LPA's slogan has
become very popular in the labor movement: "The Bosses Have Two Parties-We
Need One of Our Own."
Membership in LPA more than doubled in 1995, with dozens of new chapters
set up, and the founding convention of the Labor Party was scheduled for
June 6 to 9, 1996, in Cleveland, Ohio. Unless the convention decides otherwise,
however, the new Labor Party will start its life as a non-electoral organization,
in effect an educational and lobbying group. It will not interfere with
the AFL-CIO's PAC, the Committee on Political Education (COPE), which funds
and drives votes for political campaigns of Democrats, for the most part.
Asked about the need for a labor party about a year ago, then-AFL-CIO President
Lane Kirkland growled, "We already have a labor party-it's called COPE."
Mazzochi says, "I don't think electing people is meaningful in the
absence of a movement. ... The question of candidates will take care of
itself if we build a movement that begins to animate Americans." (Z
Magazine, April 1995,)
The question of a New Zealand-style alliance has already come up, and Mazzochi
has ruled that out also, at least for now. Labor reporter Laura McClure,
who interviewed Mazzochi, suggested that some progressives and trade unionists
want to see a coalition: "Some of these folks think the people who
support LPA should get together with others trying to build third party
alternatives-such as the New Party, the Greens, or the Campaign for a New
McClure reports Mazzochi does not believe this is the right time for building
coalitions: "We will talk about coalitions once we define who we are
and we have a program. Then we'll seek out people who share in those goals."
(Z Magazine, April 1995.)
Leo Seidlitz, LPA coordinator in Northern California, has a more flexible
approach: "Except for a very few people, we all agree we have to work
in coalition with other non-labor organizations. But first we have to organize
ourselves before we can coalesce, or we'll lose our focus." (L.A. Village
View, April 14, 1995.)
While national affiliations may only be for future years, there is nothing
to stop local cooperation among all the progressive third party efforts
from beginning immediately. In Oakland, California, local LPA leaders have
already unofficially joined the Green Party and Peace and Freedom Party
in a Progressive Alliance of Alameda County, initiated by Peter Camejo.
Adolph Reed Jr., the only academic member of LPA's executive board and a
self-proclaimed "product of the new left," believes that the opposition
to unity is more likely to come from a politically shy left: "Doing
a politics that requires talking to someone other than ourselves disappears
from our vision," he said. "The really dicey stuff" is the
problem of confronting white racism and sexism in these constituencies:
"... the flight into ideology that came after the demise of the anti-war
movement was in large measure a reflection of the aversion to the distasteful
aspects of doing pragmatic politics-and I say that in the spirit of self-criticism."
(Z Magazine, April 1995.)
If labor and the social movements are to come together, that spirit of
self-criticism will be needed more than ever before on both sides, and it
may help to remember that many on both sides started out on the same picket
line. The fact is that neither labor nor the social movements can build
a successful new mainstream without each other. Just as stopping the war
in Indochina required a broad opposition, unified in action if not in ideology,
so the creation of a progressive alternative will demand the coalescing
of labor and the new politics movement.
A common ground of Populism
The broad left in America is a demographic jigsaw scattered by distrust
and rivalries. Noam Chomsky points out that, "American society is now
remarkably atomized. Political organizations have collapsed. ... The left
has a lot to answer for here. There's been a drift toward very fragmenting
tendencies among left groups, toward this sort of identity politics."
(Mother Jones, January/February 1996.)
To what extent is cooperation possible on the broad left? Is it even conceivable
that a Labor-Women-Rainbow-La Raza-Green-Lavender alliance could become
a serious rallying cry? Real-life solidarities these days have declined
precipitously, even as the slogan of solidarity has become a disembodied
echo. Ronnie Dugger, in his call to all these diverse strands in the peoples'
movements to come to a 100th anniversary populist conference, poses the
question: "Will we continue to divide ourselves, according to our wounds
and our alarms, until they have taken the country away from us for good?"
His call first appeared in The Nation, August 14, 1995 and has been passed
around almost as much as the 1892 Populist Manifesto.
Dugger says: "This is a call to hope and to action, a call to reclaim
and reinvent democracy, a call to the hard work of reorganizing ourselves
into a broad national coalition, a call to populists, workers, progressives
and liberals to reconstitute ourselves into a smashing new national force
to end corporate rule." The call is addressed to many: "Some of
us are Democrats, some independent, some are or were for Ross Perot, some
follow Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, some of us are Green Party, New
Party or the soon-to-be Labor Party, some are libertarians about personal
life, a thimbleful of us may be Republicans." Dugger proposes to call
this coalition the Alliance, as he says, "on a cue from a similar project
in New Zealand."
The parallel is fairly clear: "We are all those who believe the corporations
are becoming our masters and do not want to vote for candidates of any party
dependent on them." As he points out: "A majority of people polled
nationally favor the establishment of a major new third party; the New Party
and the Greens are showing encouraging signs of growth, and by the end of
the year a new Labor Party will come into being. Insurgents have engineered
the retirement of the aging chief of the AFL-CIO ..."
"All this, " Dugger says, "is what needs to be fused, if
and to whatever extent people and their organizations want to be fused,
into a pro-people national alliance. But can we reassemble and take power?
Can a people so different in origin, race, religion and history know and
care about each other enough and act together in our common interests powerfully
enough to save the democracy and ourselves?."
Dugger has written in a followup in The Nation (Sept. 25, 1995), "I
suggest that the parallel efforts for a national coalition-The Citizens
Alliance, the Rainbow Coalition, the New Party, the Third Party '96 effort,
Jobs with Justice-converge...into one broad coalition."
This ecumenical call is inspiring, but it would take a miracle to get the
New Party leadership to join with the Third Parties '96 Common Ground, and
so far the New Party has not shown any interest in heeding Dugger's call
either. But if Dugger's call does result in the formation of a mass organization
anything like his vision, it would have a powerful influence on American
politics, particularly if it actually institutionalized democratic, collective
decision-making. The results would be epochal.
The essence of participatory democracy is tolerant debate and respect for
diversity. As Alexander Cockburn notes (and he should know), "On this
matter of unity, Hegel says somewhere that no political party can be said
truly to exist unless it is divided against itself (The Nation, Aug. 3,
Dugger says, "Whatever the new Alliance does and stands for will be
decided by ... democratic conversations." Some will object to Dugger
shining a narrow spotlight on the Populist Party of a hundred years ago,
while leaving the broad historic panorama of the left on this continent,
as well as the antecedents in the Old World or the upstarts in the Colonial
Empire, buried in the darkness.
One suspects that Dugger's own roots are not entirely coincidental. He notes
that, "The Populists' National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union
started with a meeting of seven people in a farmhouse in Lampasas County,
Texas. "I propose the emphasis on Populism because the nineteenth-century
Populists denied the legitimacy of corporate domination of a democracy,
whereas in this century the progressives, the unions and the liberals gave
up on and forgot about that organic and controlling issue. I propose that
we seize the word Populism back [and] restore its original meaning in American
history, that of the anti-corporate Populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s."
The anti-corporate dimension of Populism is especially relevant today, and
it is necessarily in conflict with the drift of the Democrats. Dugger goes
on to update the tenant farmer and industrial worker cast for this modern
morality play: "So, as I would have it, we are Populists; but we are
many other things. We are white, black, brown, every religion and none,
young, middle-aged, old. We are people who work, for a corporation or a
small business or a farm, for our families or for ourselves, or we're job
creators, local merchants, small-business people in the towns or cities,
or we're people who can't find work or have given up trying. We are ordinary
"We are feminists, environmentalists, peace and antinuclear people,
civil rightsers, civil libertarians, radical democrats, democratic socialists,
egalitarians; and we are moderates and conservatives...." The problem
with all modern variants of populism, left or right, is that they often
don't have a clue as to where class lines are to be drawn.
Dugger's shortcomings here, in casting too wide a net, are precisely the
opposite of Mazzochi's. Despite its limitations, Dugger's Call to Hope and
Action should receive an enthusiastic reception by all the forces in Third
Parties '96 and the broad left. As he says, "Let's try: Let's revive
and continue the American Populist Movement on the strength of our knowing
that its best democratic passions have never died among us. With Tom Paine,
we will 'lay then the axe to the root, and teach governments humanity.'