David North
The Workers League and the Founding of the Socialist Equality Party

The Workers League and the Labor Party Demand

The significance of the labor party question

In the history of the Workers League, the issue of the labor party has played a central role. The call for the formation of a labor party represented more than an agitational tactic. It embodied a definite strategical conception of the revolutionary development of the American working class.

Indeed, an examination of the different ways in which the labor party question has been formulated by the Workers League provides a profound insight into both the political evolution of our party and the objective development of the class struggle in the United States.

The Workers League was formed in the autumn of 1966. This was a period characterized by a radicalization of broad sections of the working class and youth. The civil rights movement, which had been until 1965 predominantly a movement of nonviolent protest in the South, was superseded by the eruption of violent struggles in all the major urban centers of the North. The opposition of students to the war in Vietnam was beginning to assume a mass character. At the same time, there were clear signs of restlessness within the working class. The trade union movement was growing rapidly, as teachers and other social service workers became organized. In the beginning of 1966 New York City was paralyzed for several weeks by a transit strike that was called in defiance of the law.

The degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party had been clearly reflected in its abandonment of the party’s traditional call for the formation of a labor party. Throughout this period the SWP largely abstained from the struggles of the working class.

In reviving the labor party demand, the Workers League was striving to reassert the central and leading role of the American working class in the struggle against US capitalism and, at the same time, to elaborate a viable strategy for the development of the revolutionary movement.

The resolution adopted by the founding conference of the Workers League stated:

“At this stage in the development of the American working class our central transitional demand must be the creation of a labor party, a party of the American working class. The working class must be shown that it must of necessity go beyond isolated economic struggles to a fundamental political struggle against the ruling class and its political instruments. The labor party demand thus becomes the unifying demand of all our work in the United States. It must permeate all our propaganda and agitation: among the working class youth, in the trade unions, among the minority peoples, around the war question....

“It is important that we develop our propaganda and agitation around the labor party slogan in such a way that we link the existing struggles and the related level of the more conscious militants with the generalizing concept of the labor party. We must avoid presenting the concept in a formal and abstract way. Thus, while a labor party must rely on the American trade union movement as its major base, it does not follow that the main impetus for a labor party now and in the immediate period ahead will necessarily come out of the trade unions. Embryonic developments in the direction of a labor party can begin within the Negro movement in the South, among Negroes and other minority peoples in Northern ghettos and even around the war question. In all such cases we must struggle within these movements to turn the movement towards the broad layers of the class and the trade union movement in particular. While the movement towards the labor party can get its start outside the trade union movement, it must develop a base within the organized labor movement before it can develop into a serious force. Further, unless such movements struggle to become a movement of the class as a whole, they will of necessity lose whatever class program they have achieved, as they maneuver between the existing capitalist parties rather than struggling to supplant them.” (Emphasis added.)

The fight for the labor party was, as this passage clearly indicates, linked to the struggle of the Workers League to establish its influence in the trade unions. It should hardly be necessary to point out the enormous difference in the relation that existed between the trade unions and the working class in 1966 and that which exists today. Bear in mind the following: just as many years separate the founding of the Workers League from the Flint sit-down strike as from today’s aggregate. The end of World War II was to that time a somewhat more recent event than the end of America’s direct military involvement in Vietnam is to ours. Many of the industrial workers who were veterans of World War II and who had participated in the great industrial strikes of 1945-46 were, at that time, in their mid-forties. Indeed, there were still to be found in the factories many workers who had participated in the struggles that had led to the formation of their CIO locals.

Many of the individuals who led the unions at that time were people whose personal identification with the earlier struggles provided a certain cover for their opportunism. To name only a few: Reuther and Mazey in the (JAW; Jimmy Hoffa in the Teamsters (he himself freely acknowledged he had acquired his knowledge of organizing tactics from Farrell Dobbs and he claimed Harold Gibbons, who had been associated with the SWP, was one of his closest allies in the union); Harry Bridges in the ILWU; Joe Curran in the NMU; Albert Fitzgerald in the UE; and Leon Davis in Local 1199. From the younger generation, the most important figure was the right-wing Shachtmanite Albert Shanker, whose national reputation was based on his leadership of the strikes which had established the authority of the New York Federation of Teachers. All of these people were scoundrels of the worst order, but they retained, nevertheless, a certain credibility within the working class. It was their good fortune that they led the trade unions under conditions in which the dominant world position of American capitalism nurtured a policy of class compromise.

There could be no question, at that time, of developing a labor party independently of the trade unions. The strategical line that had been elaborated by Trotsky in 1938, only 28 years earlier, retained its validity. The political development of the CIO, interrupted by the war and then sabotaged by the onset of anticommunist reaction, had to be renewed. The demand for the labor party was the means of attacking the trade union bureaucracy on the most critical and vulnerable point of its policy: the political alliance with the Democratic Party.

Labor party campaigns (1972-1978)

In the years that followed, the Workers League developed its work in the trade unions on the basis of propaganda and agitation for the labor party. The years between 1969 and 1975 saw an enormous upsurge in industrial militancy: the wave of strikes in the electrical industry, the auto industry, on the East Coast and West Coast docks, and, of course, the walkout of postal workers in the spring of 1970.

The wage settlement won by steel workers in 1971, without a strike, was reported to be the event that actually triggered Nixon’s decision, on August 15, 1971, to impose a 90-day freeze on wages and prices and establish a tripartite government-management-labor wage board, whose purpose, upon the expiration of the freeze, was to limit annual wage increases to 5.5 percent. Today, the granting of annual increases of that size would be considered an act of extravagant generosity. In 1971 it was denounced by George Meany, the personification of the reactionary traditions and politics of the AFL, as a declaration of war on American labor and the first step toward fascism in the United States. Nevertheless, he agreed to serve on the wage board, and the Workers League developed a powerful political campaign within the trade unions, centered on the demand that Meany and his AFL-CIO associates walk off the board and break the 5.5 percent limit

That campaign was popularized with the publication in the early summer of 1972 of a pamphlet, The Case for a Labor Party, of which we sold approximately 75,000 copies. Another pamphlet, Where Wallace Really Stands, was written to promote the formation of a labor party as the only effective means of halting the growth of Wallace’s influence among industrial workers.

These publications led to the organization of a conference in Chicago in October 1972, where the Workers League established the Trade Union Alliance for a Labor Party. It was attended by workers from virtually every major section of industry. A second conference of the TUALP was held in St. Louis in February 1973. In March 1975, the party held in Detroit the most successful conference of the TUALP, which was attended by more than 300 delegates.

If one examines the documents of that period, one will find that the party was attempting to formulate more exactly the relationship between the fight for the labor party and the development of the Workers League as a revolutionary party. We had come to recognize that there existed the danger that the fight for the establishment of the revolutionary party could be blurred by the demand fora labor party of a politically indistinct character. Thus, we wrote in the perspectives resolution of November 1975:

“The Workers League fights for the labor party from the standpoint of the struggle for power and the building of the mass revolutionary party. The labor party is a necessary first step which the working class must take in preparation for the struggle for power. But it must never be seen as some sort of panacea and substitute for the revolutionary party.”

In the perspectives resolution of January 1977, we again stated: “In emphasizing the need to step up the campaign for the labor party, comrades must never forget that the decisive issue is the building of the Workers League and its transformation into the mass revolutionary party. We fight for the labor party from this standpoint alone.”

Perspectives resolution of 1978

Nevertheless there remained, despite these warnings, a dissatisfaction with the political ambiguity that attended the fight for the labor party. We recognized the persistent danger that the independent tasks of the revolutionary movement could be lost in the general demand for the formation of another working class party. Moreover, the way in which the call for the labor party was formulated as a “demand” addressed to the trade union bureaucracy carried with it the danger of subordinating the Workers League to the maneuvers of that bureaucracy. In the aftermath of our intervention in the miners strike of 1977-78, which had assumed the form of a rank-and-file rebellion against the UMW leadership and open defiance of the federal government, we subjected the labor party question to a fundamental reexamination. At the heart of that examination was a critical assessment of the position developed by Cannon in 1954, which argued that the impulse for the establishment of the labor party would come from the trade union bureaucracy.

The Workers League argued: “In practice, this means subservience to the trade union bureaucracy... the whole experience of the AFL-CIO has shown that the bureaucracy will stop at nothing to destroy any genuine independent political movement by the working class against the two capitalist parties. Any political movement of any sort led by any section of the trade union bureaucracy, whether for a ‘third’ party or even for something called a ‘labor party’ would in no sense represent a real political break from the apron strings of the bourgeoisie.”

The document represented a critical advance in yet another manner. It called attention to the fact that a movement for a labor party could assume revolutionary dimensions only to the extent that it represented a broad social movement of the working class. We stated:

“The labor party will not simply be a product ‘of a radical upsurge in the ranks of the trade unionists.’ There is no question that the spontaneous upsurge in trade unions will play a crucial role in the emergence of the labor party. But this is a narrow view whose basic error is to conceive of the struggle for the labor party as nothing more than the direct extension of trade unionism into the domain of politics. This is a reformist conception. The mass movement for a break with the politics of the bourgeoisie will emerge out of a spontaneous explosion sparked by the anger of all sections of the oppressed.”

The Reagan years

As we have already stated, the election of Ronald Reagan represented a major change in the class strategy of the bourgeoisie and led to a profound change in class relations. The Workers League responded rapidly to this change and warned that the Reagan administration would initiate a major assault on the working class and its trade unions. On the eve of struggles that would involve millions of workers organized in the unions of the AFL-CIO, the party broadened its campaign for the formation of a labor party based on the trade unions.

In the years that followed, the trade unions were, as the Workers League had anticipated, the center of the most bitter class struggles of the postwar period. Each of these struggles was defeated as a result of the policies of the AFL-CIO. Even before the election of Reagan, the AFL-CIO had signaled, with its acceptance of the terms of the Chrysler bailout, its willingness to collaborate with the employers and the state in lowering the living standards of the working class. After Reagan’s accession to power, beginning with PATCO, the AFL-CIO deliberately isolated and ensured the defeat of section after section of unionized workers.

In our 1985 perspectives resolution, we analyzed the material basis of these betrayals of the working class. “The trade union bureaucracy,” we wrote, “is not merely an aggregate of corrupt individuals. It comprises a definite social stratum which has an utterly parasitic relation to the trade union movement and which, on the basis of the services it renders to the bourgeoisie, enjoys a standard of living far higher than that of the workers it supposedly represents.

“The ruling body of the AFL-CIO, its Executive Council, has 35 members—the leading officers of 31 unions plus the top officials in the AFL-CIO national headquarters. According to official reports filed with the US Labor Department, these men disposed of a combined income in 1983-84 of $3,913,089. Including all the officers of the labor organizations represented on the AFL-CIO Executive Council, their combined income in salary and expenses in 1983-84 totaled $44,987,846. If we now include in our calculations the entire staff of these 31 unions, plus the AFL-CIO, the annual payroll breaks down as follows: in salary, $321,677,435. To this astronomical figure must be added another $71,532,780, which is paid out to cover extra ‘expenses’—i.e., hotels, ‘business’ lunches and dinners, etc. Thus, the 35 members of the AFL-CIO Executive Council speak directly on behalf of a gargantuan bureaucracy which consumes just under $400 million per year!

“Hoards of petty bureaucrats, who perform no productive labor, stuff themselves to their gills on the dues paid by the workers they refuse to defend. The International staff of the United Steelworkers consumed more than $45 million in wages and expenses—a sum that equals more than 41 percent of the total dues paid by members in 1984. The International staff of the UAW disposed of more than $61 million in 1984, approximately 30 percent of the union’s income in dues.... On the basis of the total income of just a small but representative portion of the trade union officialdom, it is not unreasonable to estimate that the labor bureaucracy as a whole consumes several billion dollars per year. Here is to be found the real material base of the bureaucracy’s slavish defense of imperialism, its pathological anticommunism, its desperate fear of the working class and its hatred of all those within the workers movement who stand on the basis of the class struggle against capitalism.”

From this analysis we draw the conclusion: “The mobilization of the working class against American imperialism must of necessity take the form of an internal civil war within the trade unions, pitting the rank and file against the well-paid agents of the ruling class. The political essence of this struggle is the struggle for Marxism in the trade unions and the building of the revolutionary party as the alternative to the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. This is the task of the Workers League.”

Taken as a whole, the 1980s marked a definite change in the relation of the AFL-CIO to the working class. A partial list of the defeats for which it was directly responsible suggests the historical character of its betrayal:

PATCO in 1981; Continental Airlines, Phelps Dodge and Greyhound in 1983-84; AT Massey in 1985-86; United Airlines, Pan American Airlines, the Chicago Tribune, Hormel and Wheeling-Pittsburgh in 1985-86; TWA, Colt Firearms, USX Steel, IBP and Patrick Cudahy in 1986-87; John Morrell and International Paper in 1987-88; Pittston and Eastern in 1989.

In the perspectives work that was developed after the split with the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Workers League grappled with the programmatic implications of the betrayals of the AFL-CIO. While the resolution of July 1988 still used the formulation labor party based on the trade unions, it marked a major advance in our understanding, in concrete terms, of the relationship between the fight for the labor party and the development of the revolutionary movement It decisively affirmed our rejection of any sort of reformist labor party. We stated clearly that the Workers League would consider itself under no obligation to give any support, critical or otherwise, to a political party formed by the trade unions. Only to the extent that a labor party formation contained real potential for a development along revolutionary socialist lines would it merit the support and active encouragement of the Workers League.

But even by then, the phrase “labor party based on the trade unions”— which appeared in only one passage in the entire document—had been overtaken by events. Indeed, the phrase, to the extent that it still appeared in the documents and statements of the Workers League, resembled something like a vestigial remnant of the past evolutionary development of our movement.

As we stated in February 1990:

“The quantitative accumulation of betrayals and defeats and the ever-expanding web of labor-management collaboration have produced a qualitative transformation in the relationship of the bureaucracy to the ruling class on the one side, and the working class on the other. The union leadership, from the highest levels of the AFL-CIO down to the local union officials, is being fully integrated into the structure of corporate management....

“The transformed role of the trade union bureaucracy has been expressed most clearly in the Eastern strike and the attempt of the pilots’ leadership to engineer a so-called workers’ buyout of United Airlines. At Eastern the leadership of the union in no sense negotiated to defend the jobs, wages and benefits of the workers. From the beginning it bargained on its own behalf, seeking to protect its privileges and gain posts in corporate management.”

Finally, in 1992, in the world-historical context of the bureaucratic dissolution of the Soviet state, we drew the necessary conclusions from the betrayals of the labor bureaucracies internationally and in the United States:

“What are the lessons which must be drawn from the juridical liquidation of the USSR? After all, the Soviet state and its economic foundations were not overthrown from below. They were dispensed with from above. These transformations have been carried out over the head of broad masses of people by tiny bureaucratic cliques utilizing their positions of power to paralyze the workers movement and liquidate its past achievements. What has occurred in the former Soviet Union is a manifestation of an international phenomenon. All over the world the working class is confronted with the fact that the trade unions, parties and even states which it created in an earlier period have been transformed into the direct instruments of imperialism.

“The days are over when the labor bureaucracies ‘mediated’ the class struggle and played the role of buffer between the classes. Though the bureaucracies generally betrayed the historical interests of the working class, they still, in a limited sense, served its daily needs; and, to that extent, ‘justified’ their existence as leaders of working class organizations. That period is over. The bureaucracy cannot play any such independent role in the present period.

“This is true not only for the bureaucracy in the USSR, but for the American bureaucracy in the trade unions. At our last congress we stressed that the leaders of the present trade unions cannot be defined as a force which defends and represents, if only in a limited and distorted way, the interests of the working class. To define the leaders of the AFL-CIO as ‘trade union’ leaders, or, for that matter, to define the AFL-CIO as a working class organization is to blind the working class to the realities which it confronts.”