The Fight for Independent Politics Today: Statement by Socialist Organizer
Victories in Lorain, Ohio, and Seattle
The deepening social and political crisis in the United States is producing a number of initiatives in the direction of independent working-class political action.
Last November, the trade union movement in Lorain, Ohio — the home of the state’s largest steel and auto manufacturing facilities — got fed up with the Democrats and ran a slate of two dozen union members and officers for local office on an Independent Labor Party ticket. All but two of the candidates fielded by the Central Labor Council won.
“This was a step we took reluctantly, when the leaders of the [Democratic] Party just took us for granted and tried to roll over the rights of working people here, we had to stand up,” stated Lorain County AFL-CIO President Harry Williamson.
A series of disputes between organized labor and the Democratic leadership led to the CLC’s decision to work with allies and run their own independent slate of candidates for office. One dispute involved a Lorain Project Labor Agreement (PLA) that was passed but then repealed by the Democratic-run City Council. Another dispute involved the Teamsters union, when Democratic Party council members borrowed city trucks to try and break the Teamsters’ strike.
At the victory rally, the union crowd, some in “Independent Labor Party” shirts that the CLC had ordered for the campaign, greeted the candidates with loud cheers.
“We need to use this victory to build wider unity,” said Joe Thayer of the Sheet Metal Workers Union. “We didn’t pick this fight, but we had to finish it. We need to build stronger alliances, work with more friends, even if we put our issues on a back burner to help and fight for our friends in the communities. We need to keep reaching out and show that our interests are the same as others. If we do that, then we’ll grow.”
Another important sign of the changing times is the victory of Kshama Sawant, the candidate of Socialist Alternative (SAlt), to the Seattle City Council.
Sawant’s election has shaken up politics in the Pacific Northwest. The SAlt candidate built a successful grassroots campaign with hundred of volunteers and received the endorsements of several unions in Seattle and the majority of the delegates to the King County Central Labor Council, which includes the city of Seattle.
In a statement issued immediately following Sawant’s election, Socialist Organizer noted:
“Sawant proved that people can break with the two-party duopoly of the Democrats and Republicans if a clear message of working-class independence is broadcast and the standing of the candidate is firm as a defender and activist of various struggles. . . .
“The election of the openly socialist, pro-labor and anti-Democratic Party Kshama Sawant shows the massive rejection of the Democrats and gives lie to their claim that the Democratic Party represents working people. The disgust is now demonstrative, and we need to develop such a victory as happened in Seattle into a genuinely national working-class movement for independent political action.”
Chicago Teachers Union forms Independent Political Organization
Yet another example of the ferment that is rising for independent working-class political action was the creation in early January 2014 by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) of the Independent Political Organization (IPO).
An article posted on the CTU website described this development as follows:
“The CTU has decided to wade directly into Chicago and Illinois politics with its own independent political organization. The move comes as a range of issues such as charters schools, poverty, the state’s minimum wage, Tax Increment Financing (TIF) reform and more are increasingly at the forefront of political campaigns and voters’ minds in Chicago and across the state.
“However, from the CTU’s perspective, the creation of an independent political organization, or IPO, isn’t simply about backing particular candidates or enacting legislation. Instead, it’s about moving the needle in political terms away from trends such as education privatization and a culture of mandated school testing and towards what the union sees as policies that matter to working families and its 30,000 members.
“At its Jan. 8 meeting of delegates, the CTU adopted a resolution authorizing union leadership to pursue a slate of activities geared toward building a more concrete political infrastructure and pursuing an ambitious plan of action around its objectives. These include ‘developing, electing and supporting’ candidates for office, along with leading ‘strong electoral and legislative campaigns’.”
The decision by the CTU to launch the Independent Political Organization resulted from their experience with the Democratic Party budget-cutters and union-busters. The seven-day teachers’ strike in September 2012 against a Democratic mayor, backed by a Democratic governor and a Democratic president, posed the immediate need for a break with the parties of the bosses.
But the decision was also the result of the great energy and interest in independent politics expressed at the Oct. 15, 2013 “Take Back Chicago” Town Hall meeting, where an estimated 2,000 people from a variety of community and labor organizations vowed to launch a city-wide counter-offensive against corporate bulldozing of public sector human services, schools and unions.
In its documentary film “Done with the Democrats,” Chicago’s Labor Beat quoted one of the Town Hall co-moderators, Brandon Johnson as follows: “For far too long we’ve seen a corporate agenda that has worked to destroy public education at the hands of [Democratic Mayor] Rahm Emanuel and the politicians that are linked to him. There’s a new day in Chicago, that no longer are we going to allow the corporate groups to dictate what our city looks like.”
Chicago activist Marilena Marchetti noted that “the event brought a lot of different forces together. . . . We felt the potential for our collective power.”
“Done with the Democrats” went on to quote N’Dana Carter, a mental-health activist, who called out the entire Democrat Chicago City Council (a handful of whom were present on the stage) for voting to close six public mental-health clinics in 2011, a decision that inflicted great pain on affected communities.
Chicago activist Lauren Fleer added: “Always there’s the temptation to say not now, later, we have to wait, we have to take the pragmatic choice, that it’s just not credible to run a third party candidate, we’ll never win. But at some point we have to stake out our own political position. At some point we have to make the break.”
Although the event did not go as far as to call for a clean political break from the Democratic Party, the Town Hall meeting showed the huge potential for anchoring the fight for an independent labor-community slate of candidates for local office in the struggles of Chicago’s working class, particularly its Black and Latino communities.
What way forward?
The three positive initiatives described above have their limitations, some more serious than others.
Sawant ran in an election in which there was no Republican candidate in the running. This was a significant reason why an open socialist was able to win a seat to the City Council in a major U.S. city; there was no pressure to support the “lesser-evil” Democrat against the Republican. These circumstances certainly don’t exist in most other U.S. cities.
Having said that, if the Sawant victory were to be placed at the service of building independent labor-community slates for local office, it could represent a big step forward. In numerous cities across the country, there is great potential to field a slate of independent labor-community candidates, with the unions and progressive community organizations firmly in the driver’s seat determining the platform and the candidates through labor-community congresses for independent politics.
But calling for both a socialist electoral regroupment and support for independent labor-community slates, as Socialist Alternative does, only confuses the strategic direction that is needed. Millions of people today are looking for an alternative to the Democratic Party, yet only a fraction of these are open at this point to joining a socialist organization or supporting a slate of socialist candidates. That is why socialist election campaigns, while definitely useful in certain contexts, are no substitute for building a much broader political alternative capable of mobilizing and involving the masses of working people and their organizations.
The other two labor initiatives — in Lorain and Chicago — are contradictory and do not represent at this stage a clean break with the Democrats. In Lorain, the labor slate is supporting “progressive” Democratic Party candidates for state office. In Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union, the backbone of the new IPO, has just endorsed Democrat Jhatayn “Jay” Travis for state representative in the 26th District of Illinois.
But what’s important about the developments in Lorain and Chicago is that they are first steps in the quest by significant sectors of the working class and its community allies for a political representation of their own — in opposition to the two parties of Big Business.
There is no question that all the supporters of the Democratic Party will move heaven and earth to try to keep the new IPO in Chicago squarely in the camp of the “progressive” Democrats, including by promoting “fusion” candidates, where candidates could run both as IPO and as Democrats. These pressures will be immense. Finding every avenue to help move the Chicago Teachers Union and the IPO in Chicago on a truly independent working-class course is a major task of the hour.
The Chicago context, moreover, shows the limitations of purely socialist election campaigns in places where there is a real move by the unions and community organizations away from the Democrats. On Jan. 22, a new initiative supported by Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, and the International Socialist Organization was launched to run socialist candidates in Chicago. But isn’t the role of socialists at this moment in Chicago to fight tooth and nail to get the unions and community organizations to make a clean break with the Democrats? If socialists were to counterpose running their own candidates to the fight to get the CTU and IPO to break with the Democrats, they would only be playing into the hands of the powers-that-be by abandoning the Chicago working class and its organizations to the misleadership of the Democratic Party and its lackeys.
Across the country, what is needed is for the labor movement and community organizations to join together to launch independent slates at the local level. This would throw down a challenge to the labor officialdom and community organizations that for too long have subordinated themselves to the Democrats. Independent slates could give full expression to the untapped anger of the working class majority and unleash a dynamic of self-organization, culminating in the creation of a mass Labor Party based on the trade unions and organizations of Blacks, Latinos, and all the oppressed.
For our part, we in Socialist Organizer pledge our full support to this effort.