Introducing A New Series on Organizing Experiences: The Labor Party Question
In the early years of Socialist Organizer, Stan Phipps, a professor of Labor Studies in New Mexico, wrote an ongoing series for The Organizer on the history of early Labor Party experiences in the United States. Over the next nine weeks, we’ll be sharing these posts as a series at socialistorganizer.org. -ed.
One of the great tragedies in American working-class history is the fact that there is no electoral-based political party funded by and structured around the existing labor movement to campaign for and elect candidates to implement a class-based agenda as an alternative to the polices of the pro-business parties. Among the voters in the world’s industrialized democracies, working-class Americans are virtually alone in this regard. Unlike their counterparts, in Europe, Asia and much the Americas, voters in the US search in vain for a pro-worker voice in the national political debate. That is one of the primary reason that so many U.S. voters abstain from voting, even in presidential elections.
Up to 100 million eligible voters chose not to participate in 2000 presidential election choice between “Gush” and “Bore.” Studies indicate that both the capitalist class and the professional middle class in the United States vote in numbers equivalent to their counterparts in other industrialized democracies. For Americans the situation is very different indeed. In Western Europe, social class is the strongest indicator in determining for which party a person will vote. By contrast in the U.S., social class is the most important indicator of whether or not a person will vote. Only about one in three working class Americans take part in presidential elections. In the so-called off-year elections, the abstention rate is even higher. When the choice is reduced to that of choosing the lesser evil, many quite rationally choose to not participate in the political charade.
Without a meaningful voice, in the selecting candidates and setting of the political/economic agenda, the working class majority continues to suffer hard times. Nelson Lichtenstein has documented the hardships imposed on American labor since With the end of the long economic boom in 1973. As noted in a book review a edition of The Organizer, correlates of the economic downturn have been devastating for working-class Americans. For the last quarter century, American workers have been confronted with tepid “productivity growth, decades of wage stagnation, job insecurity, stressful work, and a dramatic decline in union strength.” Even during the “long economic recovery that characterized the 1990s, … the median income of American households suffered a continuous decline.” Young families have been especially hard hit. Real “household incomes” in families whose “breadwinners” were under the age of 30 dropped to “one-third less than their counterparts in 1973, even though their total work hours were longer and the educational level of the head of the household was higher than a generation earlier.”
In addition, American workers “hold a dubious world-class distinction.” While “working hours in all other large industrial countries are falling, Americans have moved into first place,” surpassing the Japanese, “in terms of hours worked each year.” In the “last two decades the parents in a typical middle class family increased their work time by about 10 percent.” As a result Americans now work 200 hours “more than the nearby Canadians,” and nearly 400 more than “the industrious Germans.” The disparity between chief executive officer (CEO) and a “blue collar operative or clerical assigned to routine office work” ballooned from a ratio of 44:1 in 1965 to 300-400:1” range.
Worst of all, for increasing number of Americans, “steady work” has not paid off. “Four of five households take home a thinner slice of the economic pie than they did a quarter century before.” This was true even in the relatively prosperous decade of the 1990s. Full-time, “year-round work did not reduce poverty among the lowest paid workers.” Wages actually fell for the “bottom one-third of all wage workers” in the Silicon Valley in the area, despite the overall affluence of the region.
The decline in the cash wage was accompanied by a “remarkable assault on the social wage,” as well. Nothing seemed safe. “Public education, unemployment benefits, employment-based health insurance, the ‘welfare’ entitlement for dependent children and Medicare” all have been under “attack.” Even Social Security, the national retirement system, has been “subject to a critique that almost surely will insert into this system an element of market-based privatization.”
Most alarming of all was the “unprecedented weakness of the American trade union movement.” Only16 million American workers currently carry union cards –“13.5 percent of the entire workforce” and only 9 percent of “private sector” workers do so. The result has been yet another rather dubious distinction, organized labor in the United States” represents “a lower proportion of workers than in any other industrial democracy in the world.” Overall, the labor movement “is only a one-third as strong” as it was at its “apogee” in 1953 (and only one-fourth as strong in the private sector).
An Old Story
Yet virtually every generation of American Trade Unionists has recognized the need for just such a political formation, though this history is largely unknown to most Americans.
As a result most trade union activists in the United State would be surprised to learn that the world’s first Labor Parties, the so-called Workingmen’s Parties (these early labor party activists affectionately referred to themselves as “workies”), were founded in the US in 1828 by local trade union federations in Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Grasssroots counterparts to these labor parties have cropped up again and again in American history.
If you would like to learn about this important aspect of the American working class’s history, contact The Organizer about accessing:”The Labor Party Question in the U.S, 1828-1930: An Historical Perspective,” by Stan Phipps.