Labor Needs a Party

The Future of Labor
Labor Needs a Party
Illustration:Jim Cooke (GMG)

The United States is unique among Western democracies. We do not, and have never really had, a party of labor.

Traditionally, American labor has been identified as a key ally of the national Democratic Party, and for good reason—despite the objections of the southern faction of the party, the reforms of the New Deal brought gains and protections for labor that had until then been precarious. But in more recent years, with the conservative movement launching a full-throated attack on labor and rising Third Way moderation, the Democrats have sought to become a second party of business.

While socialist parties and labor parties in Europe have experienced this triangulation and abandonment of workers to some extent, it’s been felt all the more deeply in America, not least due to political restrictions which have effectively enshrined the two-party system as the only one we can have.

The culmination of all of this, combined with the rightward lurch of the nation’s politics since the early 1980s, is that the labor movement is in an even more tenuous position than it was before the New Deal. Union membership stands at roughly half of what it was in 1983, when the government began officially tracking it; there’s a federal government unusually hostile to unions even by our own low standards, and a Supreme Court whose defining feature will be its favoritism towards corporations and business. On the plus side, there’s a smaller but scrappy labor movement—led by teachers, domestic workers, flight attendants, fast-food workers, and so on—hellbent on fighting back and making major gains.

With this in mind, it’s worth revisiting again why the United States doesn’t have a labor party, and why—if the American right is ever to be defeated in a lasting way—we need a party that centers workers as soon as possible.

Much of the reason that the U.S. has never had a labor party can be traced to the fact that, almost from its inception, the American labor movement has rejected the idea. As the British labor historian Robin Archer recounted in Why Is There No Labor Party In the United States?, the 1894 convention of the American Federation of Labor debated a program to organize as a political party, an effort which got far enough that “some unionists had already begun to build party organizations in a number of key cities and states.” The program, however, was ultimately rejected thanks to the efforts of AFL founder and president Samuel Gompers, who feared, among other things, that creating a political party would distract from the necessary work of the labor movement, and that political efforts would be better spent trying to influence the agenda of the dominant parties at the time. Gompers addressed the question in a 1918 speech:

The fact is that an independent political labor party becomes either radical, so-called, or else reactionary, but it is primarily devoted to one thing and that is vote-getting. Every sail is trimmed to the getting of votes. The question of the conditions of Labor, the question of the standards of Labor, the question of the struggles and the sacrifices of Labor, to bring light into the lives and the work of the toilers—all that is subordinated to the one consideration of votes for the party.
The organization of a political labor party would simply mean the dividing of the activities and allegiance of the men and women of labor between two bodies, such as would often come in conflict.

A number of semi-popular third parties allied with labor popped up throughout the coming decades—namely Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party and Robert LaFollette’s Progressive Party. But Debs, involved in the founding of the American Railroad Union and the Industrial Workers of the World, mostly had an antagonistic relationship with the more mainstream unions like the AFL. The Progressive Party, meanwhile, largely existed as a vehicle for LaFollette Sr. to run for president in 1924, and all but disappeared as a national entity after that election.

The absence of a national labor party eventually allowed the Democratic Party to capture the support of most unions, largely through the labor reforms of the New Deal. The relationship was flawed from the start, though; the New Deal coalition had a very large, vocal Southern faction that was opposed to unions, mostly on the basis that they could help build racial solidarity among black and white workers. The end result was that the party which strengthened labor’s hand nationally during the 1930s was the same one that was instrumental in passing the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act a decade later. (Taft-Hartley sought to purge the labor movement of communist members, impeded the ability of unions to strike, and paved the way for some of the nation’s first right-to-work laws in places like the South—which was dominated at the time by, you guessed it, the Democratic Party.)

The relationship between Democrats and unions is still tenuous. While labor remains a key part of the party’s base to this day, that support is by no means guaranteed in the future, especially with regards to some trades. Donald Trump, who before 2016 and has since proven himself to be no friend to labor, won a larger share of union households in the last election than any Republican since Ronald Reagan.

And although the Democratic Party base has shifted to the left since the 1990s, labor’s relationship with the party is still largely determined on a regional basis; for example, Democratic governors in states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Louisiana have shown no appetite to change their states’ right to work laws. (North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper was sued by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in 2017 after signing a law which effectively prohibited North Carolina farmworkers from collectively bargaining.)

What all of this effectively means is that from a labor perspective (as well as, well, most other perspectives), we’ve mostly—with some notable exceptions—been in a better of two evils situation for the past century. As a result, workers have grown accustomed to settling for less, and union leadership has been happy to oblige.

But what if we didn’t have to settle for less? Building a worker-centric labor party would be difficult work. It might be the best hope, however, for transforming American society into something distinctly fairer, more democratic, and less dystopian than the system we have now.

The structural obstacles to doing such a thing, as history has shown, are immense. It’s almost as if the founders of the country designed it to be that way.

For that reason, there’s at least three obvious options. One is building a new party from scratch. Another is a takeover of the Democratic Party to make it not just more favorable to labor as it was in the New Deal era, but something fundamentally rooted in the labor movement. A third, which some state-based third parties are already doing—and, which I’d argue, is the best way forward—is a combination of the two.

The most immediate obstacle to the former, and the best case for the latter, is the ingrained two-party system in the United States, which has reinforced through the centuries by political machines, by ballot access laws, and so on. Even the way political parties themselves work in the United States is markedly different from other places. In the UK, joining the Labour Party entails paying a membership fee; in most places in the U.S., all you have to do is check a box at the DMV to join the Democratic (or Republican) Party.

This is essentially why every movement for a sustained third-party in the post-Civil War era, on both the right and the left, has failed in the United States. It’s just too easy to be a Republican or a Democrat or an independent/unaffiliated voter, and not easy enough to be anything else.

At the same time, the left has every reason to be skeptical that a takeover of the Democratic Party could ever work. One needs to only look at the establishment resistance to the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and (especially) Bernie Sanders—two presidential candidates running less on revolution than on a logical extension of the New Deal and the Great Society—or the proposals of popular young members of the party like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or the distrust of labor from some moderate and conservative Democrats from regions historically averse to the labor movement, to have a good picture of what this effort is up against.

In either situation, the likely end result (other than failure) would be two distinct parties, one moderate-liberal and another to the left of that. Which presents another dilemma: How do you build a resolutely left-wing party which doesn’t relegate both itself and the center party to permanent second- and third-place finishes behind the GOP?

Vermont offers one way forward, albeit with substantial caution. The Vermont Progressive Party, established nearly 40 years ago, has long been the most successful third party at the state level in the U.S., and it’s done so by mostly adopting a fusionist model with the Democratic Party. What this means effectively is that in some cases, the Progressive candidate has the endorsement of the Democrats (either tacit, with no Democratic candidate, or implicit, by running under the banner of both parties) to take on a Republican candidate, and vice versa; the Progressives also endorse Democrats. (In 2010, for example, the Progressive candidate withdrew from the gubernatorial election and the party endorsed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin, who said he’d support a single-payer healthcare program, which ultimately passed but was later abandoned.)

The fusionist model is not native to Vermont, or even America. In North Carolina, a fusionist movement of populists and black Republicans elected a progressive government in the 1890s, before a white supremacist coup ushered in Jim Crow and violently stole the franchise, and much more, from African-Americans. Populists and Democrats nominated the same presidential candidate in 1896, William Jennings Bryan. (And both before and during the early years of the UK Labour Party, the Liberal Party in the UK had informal and formal agreements with the unions and Labour to not run candidates against each other in the same constituencies.)

But in the modern era, as ballot access has tightened and the two parties have become only more entrenched, what the Vermont Progressive Party has achieved is, rather sadly, the most a left third-party has in this century. The lieutenant governor is a VPP member, while the Democratic state auditor has the VPP endorsement. The party also holds or shares a number of seats in the state legislature.

Is this an ideal solution, a permanent one, or one that’ll work everywhere to the same extent and effectiveness? Probably not. While the VPP path is the most effective one we’ve seen so far in recent years, it’s still a model that relies on a partnership with the Democratic Party, and it’s not one based in unionism or socialist principles. The VPP has also had the gift of ballot access and time, and Vermont a reputation as one of the most left-leaning states in the country overall. In some places, organizing a labor party begins by working to change laws restricting both access to the ballot and union activities.

What is clear, however, is that the political power of workers in the United States has severely waned, to the extent that they ever had a lasting one at all, and this can be traced to the fact that our only main parties—with the exception of the left wing of the Democrats—are fully devoted to capitalism and the interests of capital. If things are ever going to get better, this has to fundamentally change in some way or another. We need an alternative. Labor needs a party.

Correction, 11:07 p.m. ET: A previous version of this article misidentified the ‘I’ in ‘IWW’ as ‘International’. The IWW stands for Industrial Workers of the World.

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