Cornel West at Preston Bradley Hall

A version of this article was originally published in New Ground 75, March — April, 2001.

Cornel West at Preston Bradley Hall

by Bob Roman

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) held its annual meeting on the evening of Thursday, February 1, in the Chicago Cultural Center’s ornate Preston Bradley Hall. The only real item of business for the meeting was the ratification of the committee nominated candidates for the CCH Board of Directors. None the less, a couple hundred people attended the meeting. They came to hear DSA National Honorary Chair Cornel West.

As usual, Cornel West’s affiliation with DSA was not mentioned. Rather, much was made of his promotion to full professor, “a title held by only 14 of Harvard’s 2,200 faculty members”. It certainly is an honor Dr. West deserves, but it also leaves one wondering if the Harvard faculty couldn’t benefit from a good union.

Cornel West was introduced by another DSA member, Congressman Danny Davis. Congressman Davis is also no slouch as speaker. I’ve heard him speak for over a quarter of an hour while saying nothing more than a half dozen variations on it’s nice to be here yet still have the audience in the palm of his hand throughout. This time he was as artful as ever and rather more substantive — as he is on occasions that genuinely engage his interest.

Despite a reputation as “intellectually aggressive and highly cerebral”, Cornel West is not exactly a linear speaker. In a speaker less skillful, this trait can lead to a presentation resembling a vacuous monologue. But Cornel West develops his thoughts, and his segues, between topics and through the range of culture, popular to classical; they are done with an elegance that resembles a verbal ballet. If one is as tired as I was and as easily distracted by the hallucinatory architectural decoration of the Cultural Center, it’s easy to come round suddenly and find the speech somewhere entirely other: disconcerting, perhaps, except to a veteran rider of the Chicago Transit Authority.

None the less, the speech was about capitalism. The speech was not simply an indictment of capitalism’s manifest injustice; it was a discussion of how the modes of domination in our society result in our being less than fully human. Interwoven were themes of mortality, which may sound as if the speech was morbid. It was not. For example, in praising committed activists, those “long distance runners”, he described them as people “so maladjusted to injustice they take time out of their short lives to be a part of the struggle”. Mortality, yes; morbidity, no.

Yet it was not until the end of the speech that Dr. West named the enemy, capitalism. He did it in passing; blink and you missed it. Perhaps this should not be a surprise in view of his recent book, The Future of Progressivism. This is a style of discourse owing much to the original new left of the early 1960s. It was an attempt to find a way of communicating in an “American” way, without labels or ideological conceptualizations. In the 21st Century, it seems we are mostly new leftists even as the SDS fades from memory.

This was the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ 20th anniversary. It’s hard to imagine Chicago without the Coalition. The organization has made a substantial difference in state of the very poor in Chicago. While many non-profits pay lip service to the labor movement, CCH has been there for the movement. The meeting celebrated the occasion by presenting Les Brown, the founder of much of the Homeless movement in Illinois, with an award. CCH Executive Director John Donahue observed that Les Brown was extraordinary in working his way down the staff hierarchy.

The meeting also previewed a draft cut of an infomercial being produced about the CCH. The draft includes a brief shot of AFSCME Council 31 Director Henry Bayer pitching a living wage. The video is being produced with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and the Weibolt Foundation.

This illustrates the dilemma of the CCH and many other community groups. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless wants desperately to think of itself as the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, and many of its projects and activities reflect that aspiration. Yet with a staff of 27, neither in financing nor in membership is the CCH an organization of the homeless. It depends on money from corporations and the well to do.

All things considered, the CCH balances this contradiction extraordinarily well, better than many other community groups. But if we are to get beyond leftism as an act of charity, NGO dependence on corporate foundation financing will need to change. As if the labor movement didn’t have enough to do already, it’s time for organized labor to become a source of financing for strategically selected community groups and to become participants on their boards.

Why Socialism Failed in the U.S.

or has it?

This was originally published in New Ground 74, January — February, 2000.

“Lord, Lord, It’s a Bourgeois Town”

by Bob Roman

It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks. New York, W.W. Norton & Co, 2000. 379 pp Hardcover, $26.95

Lefties may be glad to know that some reviewers greeted the central question of the book with some skepticism. What failure? The American Spectator harrumphed. See, comrades? Our enemies need us.

But in fact, the general consensus has been that the lack of a mass labor, socialist or communist movement in the United States is exceptional. Certainly us lefties have worried the subject enough. And this conundrum has been a recurring theme in Seymour Martin Lipset’s entire career; it is perhaps the original motivation for his interest in political sociology. In this book, he’s teamed up with a former student, Gary Marks, who is now a professor of political science and the founding director of the Center for European Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to visit the subject once again.

I recommend this book, but it should be used with caution.

First of all, while the book makes extensive use of historical data and, sometimes, narrative, it is not a history, not like James Weinstein’s classic The Decline of Socialism in America, for instance. Even people familiar with the history of the radical left in the States will discover new details from this book but anyone imagining they’re learning left history here is instead receiving a fragmentary, sometimes distorted albeit always interesting picture of our past. The book was not intended as a history.

Further, Lipset and Marks disavow any ambition to actually answer their question; it “may never be ultimately resolved”. Which is not to say that they don’t claim any answers. But the authors’ immediate goal was “to explore the explanatory power of comparison within the United States, across (and within) different national contexts, and over time for a classic question of American historiography.” (p. 10) It is, they concede, a big task. The problem is not that there are too few plausible explanations but there are so many as to suggest little new may be said on the issue.

Lipset and Marks begin the book rather like a concerto, with an overture, with a survey of the arguments, mostly those of leftists, about American exceptionalism: Why did the United States, alone among industrial societies, lack a significant socialist movement or a labor party? Each of the following chapters then examines a particular set of assertions using basically an historical, cross-cultural compare and contrast technique. These chapters are worth reading as much for what has worked for U.S. socialists as for an explanation of failure.

The final chapter asks: “The End of Political Exceptionalism?” It actually deals with two issues. Given American exceptionalism, where has that left us? Lipset and Marks draw upon comparative data from a variety of sources (including Chicago DSA expatriates to North Carolina, Evelyn Huber and John Stevens) to demonstrate that most of us are worse off as a result. The other is a sort of reprise of the “End of Ideology”: the observation that socialist, social democratic and labor parties world wide are becoming more like the U.S. Democratic Party: an end to exceptionalism?

So what happened? In summary, Lipset and Marks seem to favor these factors. First of all, the American political system is a tough nut to crack: a plurality electoral system, winner-take-all presidency, consensus legislative process:

“The fact that the two major parties have sustained a duopoly of 95 percent of the congressional and presidential vote since the Civil War in a society that has spawned literally thousands of political parties indicates just how stifling the American political system has been for challenging new parties.” (p. 264)

Then too, strategic and tactical decisions are relevant:

“one of the key features of modern American politics that makes life so difficult for minor parties, the primary system, made a strategy of contesting primaries within the major parties more feasible.” (p. 265)

Culture also made socialism a tough sell; Lipset and Marks argue that American political culture has been overwhelmingly anti-state, if not libertarian. Then there was the split between the socialist movement and the labor movement, which was not entirely the fault of the socialist movement. Socialism’s failure, then, was “over determined”.

Lipset and Marks find some of the arguments advanced for the failure of the socialist movement do not withstand comparative scrutiny. Historically early manhood suffrage was not a barrier to socialist parties elsewhere. Federalism both hurts and helps socialist movements. The influence of the courts on the willingness of the American Federation of Labor and its constituent unions to pursue a political rather than an economic strategy has been overblown. State repression cannot explain the failure of socialists in America.

Some reviewers have hailed It Didn’t Happen Here as the definitive work on the topic. It is not, or if it is, it will be because people will have finally given up on the subject. Nor have the authors built “a plausible explanation of our own”. They do succeed in evaluating the diverse explanations for American exceptionalism. Though I have some misgivings about some of their evaluations, anyone interested in an explanation now has some basis for weighing the various factors that have been advanced in the past.

A bigger problem, though, is that the book, for all its use of history, is basically ahistorical. Socialisms, including various the various labor, farmer – labor, socialist and communist parties, didn’t just fail. They succeeded and failed, succeeded and failed, each successive trial carrying the burden and the benefit of the preceding, in the context of a political system that was constantly evolving. Factors that were influential at one point in history were absent or subsidiary at others. Factors that by themselves might not be particularly decisive might be, in combination and in sequence, deadly. This seems to me to be particularly apt when considering World War I and the Bolshevik revolution.

The authors’ own comparisons can be used to argue that the Socialist Party in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, while far weaker than what would be predicted by a marxist paradigm, was not extraordinarily exceptional. The party was: radical, yes; unstable, yes; ideological if not principled, yes; exceptional, no. It was a plausible political vehicle even if it was ultimately an unsuccessful one. The question then becomes, once the left was smashed by repression and by sectarian hysteria, why wasn’t it reformed as happened in many other countries?

Lipset and Marks indirectly deal with this question when they compare and contrast strategies and tactics of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party during the Great Depression. Their analysis greatly parallels Michael Harrington’s argument in his book Socialism. In this context, it’s interesting that the authors, while referring to Michael Harrington frequently in the first chapter and to that particular book, do not choose to examine Harrington’s thesis that the U.S. labor movement represents a sort of crypto social democracy, which of course would be an argument that the U.S. is not all that exceptional after all. And once again, because Lipset and Marks are attempting to isolate and test particular factors, the treatment of the 1930s is largely ahistorical and therefore less helpful than it could be.

Finally, there are arguments that Lipset and Marks do not consider, at least directly, possibly because they may not be part of the literature that the authors set out to test. It seems to me that there are three major omissions.

First, it’s difficult for me to see how any discussion of U.S. politics can be complete without a discussion of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and its consequences for electoral politics and government, especially in the context of the tidal wave of immigration that dominated the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. The result being that the dominant theme of U.S. politics has been not so much class war as culture war. The authors deal extensively with immigration and with federalism, of course, and deal somewhat with racism, but not in this context and that makes a major difference in how these factors are to be judged.

Second, the very practice of electoral politics has evolved radically over the Twentieth Century. To some extent Lipset and Marks do indeed deal with this by discussing the agrarian Nonpartisan League and the 1930s Communist Party and the direct primary and this is valuable. But this evolution has had consequences for the party system and thus for minor parties and thus for the ways in which social movements find expression in electoral politics.

Even when political parties give voice to the interests of their members and constituencies, they exist first to serve the immediate interests of politicians. The primary election frees politicians from direct accountability to partisan organization. The regular schedule of elections in the U.S. (in contrast to the uncertain scheduling of elections in parliamentary systems) means that politicians can, by starting early, develop their own personal organizations and coalitions of non-party organizations in time for the elections without needing to maintain them between elections. When you add the ability and the efficiency of mass communication to appeal directly to the voter with a precisely tailored message without going through any organization, why would any rational politician choose to be subject to the burden of organizational accountability? How, then, can you talk of having a party system in any meaningful sense of the word? How would a left movement, how would any movement, find expression in that kind of electoral system? These particular questions may be beyond the scope of the book except that they reflect Harrington’s thesis that the U.S. has not been exceptional in the traditional sense of the question for a long time.

To the extent that this change is spreading (consider how U.S. political consultants have started earning a living overseas), this fully supports the authors’ view of the U.S. as the world’s future, except that the convergence of policies is a symptom not a cause.

Finally, Lipset and Marks do not discuss the changing efficacy of ideology to mobilize political movements. The ability of ideology, all ideologies not just the varieties of socialisms, to mobilize people has declined over the Twentieth Century, not continuously, not without upswings (and it appears we’re in such a period now), but generally it’s been a “bear market” for ideology for most of the past century.

After having said all that, I would urge DSA members and democratic leftists in general to read this book. There are lessons we can use, not so much from the failures of socialism in America but from its successes.

Photo by Roman.

The 2000 Election

Originally published in New Ground 73, November — December, 2000.

Reconsidering Gore and Nader

by Bob Roman

It almost doesn’t matter who won the Presidential election. I’m not saying it makes no difference. It makes a difference in more or less obvious ways, such as in the appointment of judges, appointments to the NLRB. It makes a difference in less obvious ways, as in the administration of countless obscure programs that have a subtle yet intimate consequence in people’s lives. And while legislation in Congress is bounded by the need for consensus and thus largely limited to that range of possibilities, the President does have an important role in shaping that consensus. It does make a difference.

But an election is only the beginning of politics and any outcome presents its own set of opportunities and hazards. The general consensus of the moment among pundits is that the next President will be damaged goods; that Congress, evenly split to begin with, will be poisoned by “we was robbed”: a polarized, contentious situation. While this has probably been overstated (remember the reaction to closing down the government during earlier games of “budget chicken”; beware the cry for “bipartisanship”), it will limit the possibilities for change from either side.

A polarized polity and divided ruling class should be a good situation for insurgents, but this election also revealed the weakness of the left. There was no “left” candidate in the Democratic primaries (remember Wellstone for President?). The issues were no better; the most progressive proposal for national health, for example, was actually Bradley’s inferior retread of Senator Dole’s counter proposal to Clinton’s national health plan.

That Gore was just barely able to win a plurality of the electoral vote should come as no surprise. In this entrepreneurial candidate driven electoral system, a system that treats issues and candidates as if they were commodities, it is only that Bush is of the same ilk that made Gore’s campaign viable. François Mitterand said it best: “You cannot make politics that alienate your own clientele. It is fatal.”

And what can be said of the Nader campaign? Nader failed to reach his goal of 5% nationally thus failing to qualify for matching Federal funds in the next Presidential election. Only 19 Green candidates won their elections, exclusively on the municipal and county level; with a few notable exceptions, local Green candidates generally ran substantially behind Nader. (Some 74 Greens hold public office, exclusively at the county and municipal levels.) The Nader campaign had virtually no labor support (the major exception being the United Electrical Workers) and no grassroots support among the minority communities: this despite the fact that Nader had almost ideal positions on labor and trade. Which is precisely the point. Positions don’t count without also having the ability to do more than just talk about them. Until the Greens have something beyond nice words, something concrete to offer Labor and minorities, they should not be surprised to find themselves regarded as “spoilers” rather than as saviors.

Yet the Nader campaign was not regarded by most of its activists as being about today; the point was to build a new party. But party building is problematic both specifically for the Greens and in general. Specifically for the Greens, there are Greens and there are Greens. There is the Green Party USA. There is the Association of State Green Parties. There is Nader’s campaign organization which both straddles and exceeds those two organizations. Given the historical animosity between the two, the Greens are almost lucky they did not achieve 5% of the vote. Consider the fate of the Reform Party.

The general problem with building parties in the United States is beyond the scope of this article, especially as much of it involves the minutia of election laws. Suffice it to say that with the fiasco in Florida and the Electoral College, election law reform will be higher on the political agenda. The left should take advantage of this. And while the history of national third parties has been pretty dismal, there is a history of success for municipal, county and state third parties (in descending order). This implies an organizing strategy of building from the ground up may be successful. Nader’s campaign may have been organizationally premature.

Certainly Labor would argue that Nader’s campaign was politically premature. Even though organized labor tends to have an arrogance of resources (It claims almost a third of Gore’s vote; the total spent by Labor on the election and election related activities is greater by an order of magnitude than the total budget of the Greens. Not to mention the number of people mobilized by organized labor!), it’s become clear just how vulnerable the movement is. If the movement is to survive, at least, and rebuild, the desire to have a government that is not actively hostile to labor’s very existence is surely understandable. Organized labor is in essentially a defensive political posture.

The more serious problem is keeping the “Teamsters and Turtles” together. Some of the pre-election nastiness is at least understandable, but the polemics on both sides have not ceased. Talk is talk. We will not, we should not, have a left that does not quarrel among its various parts. But these are times of peril and opportunity. To take advantage of these opportunities and to effectively defend what we have, we need to work together.

Time Team in Manchester

Do you have 50 minutes? If you’re not familiar with the BBC’s Time Team, this is your opportunity to sample it. Lasting 20 seasons, a bunch of lefty hippies tapped into the British love of history (their own, mostly) by creating an odd combination of reality TV and archaeology. This particular episode is the only one where the politics of the primary participants is a significant part of the program.

Opposing the World Trade Organization

the battle in Chicago

Originally published in New Ground 68, January — February, 2000. The “Battle in Seattle” around the meeting of the World Trade Organization is legendary on the left, but it was also echoed around the United States and the world. This is what happened in Chicago.

WTO Action in Chicago

by Bob Roman

The Chicago WTO action took place on November 30 at the Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago at 4:30 in the evening. It was a smashing success and an abject failure.

A Smashing Success

It was beyond a doubt a wildly successful event simply because it received significant news coverage. In the context of Seattle, editors and news directors felt they simply had to have some mention of the event in their coverage. Some of the reports were reasonably fair, given the constraints of reportage limited to 30 to 60 seconds. Though it may seem cynical, such participation by the “media” is crucial if anti-globalization issues are to be regarded by the political professions as something other than nationalist outgassing by fringe groups.

It was a major success because the event was organized almost at the last minute by a small number of activists, with minimal resources. That it happened at all, let alone that it was a distinct and significant political event, deserves our applause and appreciation. Further, it was one of the largest WTO demonstrations outside of Seattle itself.


It was an abject failure. At any one time, the crowd never exceeded much more than about 200, though it was a fast moving event and maybe half again as many people ultimately participated.

The participants were a real mulligan stew of activists from various lefty groups, some of which one only rarely encounters. Adopting the spirit of a bird-watcher, it was fun. My, what exotic and endangered species could be observed!

Leaflets and papers flowed like joints at a Jimi Hendrix concert, but many of them had little to do with the WTO or with the issues around globalization. And, don’t you know, it was strange but not too many of these items were being directed at passers by. Michael Moore is often obnoxious and half-assed in his criticisms of the left but he’s not entirely wrong. Isn’t it wonderful how 200 lefties from diverse ideologies can get together to trade leaflets?

To be fair, this behavior was most evident at the rally. After about twenty minutes of speeches, the rally formed up to march over to State Street and up State to the Old Navy store. I admit to having been skeptical about the political reasoning behind choosing Old Navy, but in fact the location made it ideal. If there had been an isolated, ingrown feel to the rally, the march up State Street brought it squarely in contact with the public and provided some choice photo opportunities.

What time is it, boys and girls? It’s Hubert Humphrey Time!?

Certainly nothing recent has quite so mobilized the left as the victory over the WTO in Seattle. You have to go back to the Nuclear Freeze campaign in the mid 1980s to find something comparably energizing. Yet it should be clear that the left, despite the participation of the labor movement in Seattle, is nowhere near as healthy as it was during the mid 1980s, and I wouldn’t have called the left robust then either. With an issue like the WTO, even a last minute ad hoc demonstration should have brought out ten times the turn out in Chicago, and the fact that Chicago was one of the largest local demonstrations just makes it that much more poignant.

Furthermore, the WTO and international trade is not an exclusively “left” issue. Consider that the only mainstream presidential candidate present in Seattle was Pat Buchanan. If the “Battle of Seattle” ended in a victory for the left, the main beneficiaries could ultimately be the right, just as they ultimately were the main beneficiaries of the Sixties. This is a prospect that ought to be in mind as we contemplate future strategies.

Marx, never a patient man to begin with, was particularly unkind to those who insisted upon drawing historical parallels without regard to political economy. Seattle 1999 is not Chicago 1968 nor is it Rosa Parks freshly at the front of the bus. The situation is complex, and a proper understanding of it will not come from reading ideological speculations but from focusing on hard data. The left is too weak to neglect these tools.

Because regardless of the strength of the left, planning has already begun for a series of actions next spring. The tentative plans include a national march in Washington, DC, in mid-April. This will be followed by a number of regional marches on May 1st, including one in Chicago.

Save that date: May 1st! On that day, Seattle will come to LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago. If you are interested in helping plan this action (by golly if there were a time to be involved, it is now!), call Joan Axthelm at (773) 262-6502 or (773) 871-3942 or call Dennis Dixon at (773) 384-8544.

The New Party

a notable experiment in electoral politics

The New Party was, in my not-so-humble opinion, a brilliant attempt at independent electoral politics in turn of the century United States. If you’re not acquainted with this predecessor to the Working Families Party, you can find a barely adequate summary history at Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia article does not mention that the New Party, Chicago DSA, and New Ground’s coverage of the New Party played a major part in right-wing conspiracy fantasies about President Obama being a “socialist” puppet under the control of mysterious and shadowy forces. The article below was originally published in New Ground 38, January – February, 1995.

New Party Organizes

by Bob Roman

On Saturday, January 14, the New Party in Chicago took another step in its effort to establish itself as a political force by holding a major outreach meeting directed at Chicago’s Left. About 100 people, with sizable delegations from DSA and CoC among others, heard Bruce Colburn and Elaine Bernard preach the gospel of the New Party. The audience was also introduced to the New Party’s first candidate in Chicago, Michael Chandler, who is running for Alderman in Chicago’s west side 24th ward. The meeting was held at the meeting hall of SEIU Local 880, a local that is tackling the extremely difficult task of organizing home health care workers in Illinois. SEIU Local 880 and ACORN share office space.

For me, Bruce Colburn was the more interesting speaker. Bruce Colburn is an officer of the Milwaukee Central Labor Council and the Chair of the local New Party affiliate in Milwaukee. He had a great deal to say about holding candidates accountable, maintaining a mobilized constituency, and the role of the labor movement in the process. Some of his comments were intriguing. He mentioned, for example, that labor in Milwaukee had begun canvassing its members to organize community groups.

The New Party movement has helped elect a number of candidates in Wisconsin, and it has united with a number of other left groups in Wisconsin to form the New Progressive Party of Wisconsin. The New Progressive Party has secured ballot status in the state.

All who had seen Elaine Bernard at last year’s Midwest Radical Scholars and Activists Conference were psyched up to see her again. And she gave a good performance. Elaine Bernard gave a cogent exposition on the nature of politics and the way the New Party uses this in its strategy.

The near term future of the New Party in Chicago is represented by Michael Chandler, candidate of the 24th Ward. Legal and illegal dumping, crime, housing and the Privatization Accountability Ordinance are the major issues in Mr. Chandler’s campaign. There are ten other candidates in the contest for Alderman of the 24th Ward. The incumbent is Jesse Miller, Jr. If Michael Chandler wins, the New Party will have established a foothold in mainstream Chicago politics.

The Saturday meeting was clearly intended to be a major step in organizing the New Party in Chicago. The next step is a meeting scheduled for February 1 at which the New Party will choose local officers. It’s clear that the New Party is hoping that enthusiasm generated at the Saturday meeting will help expand the New Party’s base.

In Chicago, the New Party’s biggest asset and biggest liability is ACORN.

Like most organizations, ACORN is a mixed bag. On one hand, in Chicago, ACORN is a group that attempts to organize some of the most depressed communities in the city. Chicago organizers for ACORN and organizers for SEIU Local 880 have been given modest monthly recruitment quotas for new New Party members. On the other hand, like most groups that depend on canvassing for fundraising, it’s easy enough to find burned out and disgruntled former employees. And ACORN has not had the reputation for being interested in coalition politics- until recently and, happily, not just within the New Party. In Chicago, ACORN has been working with the National Training and Information Center on housing issues, and Equip for Equality in challenging Illinois’ inaction on “Motor Voter” registration. ACORN has also become a major participant in Chicago Jobs with Justice.

But the nature of Chicago ACORN is secondary to the inevitable dynamics of the situation. As the single 800 pound gorilla in the Chicago New Party, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for newcomers to participate except on ACORN’s terms. This will make it difficult for the New Party to have a life apart from ACORN. The element that seems to be present in Milwaukee but absent in Chicago is organized labor.

Nationally, the New Party claims between 3,000 and 4,000 members and credit for electing several dozen candidates in various localities around the country. While the Saturday meeting had much to say about candidate accountability, it’s hard to assess exactly what these victories mean. The New Party is not dogmatic about establishing its own ballot line and is perfectly willing to support worthy Democratic, independents and (presumably) Republicans. In essence, the New Party functions as a Political Action Committee on steroids. As such, it represents the first truly canny, grass-roots attempt at dealing with the non-party, candidate centered electoral system in our country, but it makes “success” rather more difficult to measure.

What happened to the New Party? The Wikipedia account (as accessed on December 1, 2017) blames it on a decline triggered by the loss before the Supreme Court of the case Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party involving cross-endorsing of candidates between parties as a First Amendment right. There are two problems with this. One is that it misstates the issues involved. In point of fact, Minnesota had decided to allow cross-endorsing but required that all the political parties involved agree to it. The New Party thought it had that agreement from the Democratic Farmer Labor Party but apparently not. If you want more detail, see Ballot Access News, January14, 1996, “Eighth Circuit Throws Out Ban on Fusion” and Ballot Access News, July 20, 1996, “Minnesota New Party Betrayed”. The other is that these developments are hardly the sort of things that would cause membership to defect. It’s just not plausible.

While this must be speculation, it’s far more plausible that these developments plus a mixed track record of success led ACORN and its allies in the New Party to shut down the project regardless of the level of membership support. I would further speculate that there were decidedly different motives leading to this. In New Party chapters where ACORN was strong, the return on investment was conceivably a major motivating factor. For example, here in Chicago Michael Chandler did indeed become Alderman of the 24th Ward. Shortly thereafter, he ran for and became Democratic Ward Committeeman of the 24th Ward as a means of building his own political operation. This was not untypical. The New Party did not have the means to enforce policy discipline nor could it substitute adequately for a candidate’s own organization. Elsewhere, I think it was ACORN’s obsession with control that motivated the end of the New Party. It had little hope of outgrowing ACORN’s sandbox; why continue?

The New Party did not wither. It was killed.

More Than Gore

at the AFL-CIO Convention

Originally published in New Ground 67, November — December, 1999. These were hopeful times.

More Than Gore at the AFL-CIO Convention

by Bob Roman

When the AFL-CIO Convention met in Los Angeles this last October, most of the press reports covered the Convention’s endorsement of Al Gore’s candidacy for President. It is understandable. The sight of hard nosed labor leaders twisting their faces into smiles for a gentleman who has periodically knifed them — well, it does make for a story, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it means that some of the more important and more interesting developments at the AFL-CIO Convention were not widely covered.

The labor federation continues to develop a multi-faceted strategy for building both the AFL-CIO as an organization and building the labor movement as a social movement and as a political movement. It might not pay off next year. But there is a real potential here for a radical change in U.S. politics, even if it is something so modest as our politics coming to resemble the European industrial democracies.

Labor as a Social Movement

The AFL-CIO continues its effort to make workers’ rights the civil rights campaign of the new century. There are a number of elements to this, but one of the more important is developing links between the labor movement and the religious community. One of the activities surrounding the Convention was touted as the “first-ever joint conference” between religious and union activists. This conference cosponsored by Chicago’s National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. In fact, it was not the first such conference but another step toward scaling up the scope of an ongoing project. (See November – December, 1997, New Ground 55, Page 8, “Jobs with Justice 10th Annual National Conference”).

Indeed, Chicago has served as a laboratory for much of this work. The Chicago Federation of Labor, for example, has made the “Labor in the Pulpit” project (See July – August, 1997, New Ground 53, Page 1, “Connecting Faith and Work”) its Labor Day activity for some years now. Each Labor Day, labor speakers are invited by congregations of all faiths to speak on how work and justice are connected. Now this practice is spreading across the nation.

This building of the labor movement as a social movement is also the reason for the prominent role played at the Convention by the AFL-CIO’s “constituency” organizations such as Pride at Work, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, etc., as well as programs such as Union Summer. And if the language of “working families” doesn’t quite have the same intellectual appeal as the “labor theory of value”, it does have very much the same appeal to justice.

Not All Politics as Usual

While most of the media attention was focused on Gore’s endorsement, the AFL-CIO was holding its “Third Annual Conference for Union Members Holding Public Office”. Union members have held elective office for almost as long as there have been unions in the U.S., but it is only recently that Labor has begun to systematically track just who these people are and, more importantly, bring them together. In this way, even though these are people elected on all manner of ballot lines, the labor movement is taking steps toward actually functioning as if it were a political party.

These are still baby steps. The AFL-CIO is planning to boost the number of union members in office from 1,500 to 2,000 in (of course) 2000. Yet this is still a very small number. Consider that in Illinois alone there are well over a thousand units of local government, most of which are governed by officers that are elected rather than appointed. But it is a project that could snowball. Look for individual state federations to start holding similar conferences.

Organizational Development

The AFL-CIO’s New Alliance project is among the more obscure aspects of its strategy for the new century. It certainly doesn’t make for a good story. But when the AFL-CIO re-emphasized organizing and political action, it found that the very institutions one might expect to coordinate and maintain these efforts, the state and especially the county central labor bodies were often just barely functioning. Aside from the usual bureaucratic stuff us lefties love to whine about, local central labor bodies are frequently quite poor. There is the almost universal problem of not all unions in a locality actually affiliating with the central body. Not all AFL-CIO union locals in Chicago, for example, are members of the Chicago Federation of Labor. And then there are some places were the 1950s merger between the AFL and the CIO was never quite finished on the county level.

The AFL-CIO intends to “remap and revitalize” its state and local federations, and it has set up a fairly detailed process by which these institutions will be reformed. On institutional and staff levels, it seems to be a very participatory process intended to result in local labor federations that are at least big enough to support three full time staff and have the affiliation of basically all the AFL-CIO union locals in its jurisdiction.

By itself, this organizational reform would not amount to much. But if the other aspects of the AFL-CIO’s strategy work reasonably well, including yet another increase in the resources devoted to organizing, the federation will have in place the institutional framework to maintain and amplify these successes.

Sounds Like a Plan

The AFL-CIO is also continuing to develop projects in job training, in coordinated “social investment” of union pension funds, in education, in communications and research. None of these programs directly challenge the primacy of Capital, but all of them are to some degree subversive of it. For a good overview of the 23rd Convention, go to the AFL-CIO’s website: