New Party Report

Towards "2000 in 2000"

By Sue Wall


One candidate grew up working in Hong Kong sweatshops and led the fight as a school board member against accepting funds from Nike. Another is the chief steward of her union, a single working mother putting her daughter through college. A third is a food service worker who helped organize her restaurant.

The three—Joseph Tam, Lydia Williams, and Diane Snyder—are precisely the kinds of union members that the AFL-CIO is committed to running for public office at its Convention last fall. The slogan was 2000 by 2000, and is part of an overdue effort to establish increasing independence from the Democratic Party, even as the relationship between that Party and organized labor remains important.

This "bottom-up" approach to running your own candidates and promoting working-class issues has been heavily promoted by local affiliates of the New Party (NP), and NP chapters or members are backing all three of the candidates. In a dozen states, the NP works with union and community leaders to model the kind of multi-racial coalition and political machine capable of winning and keeping power.

When members talk about elections, many of them ask why they should even bother voting. And with most elections dominated by empty slogans and 30-second attack ads—with little discussion of real issues—it’s hard to argue with them. Unlike typical candidates like developers, lawyers, wealthy businesspeople, unions can and should focus on the issues that matter to working people.

Consider Joseph Tam’s nonpartisan race for Multnomah County Commission in Portland. He’s running for a specific seat, as well as campaigning for a county ballot measure to increase business taxes to fund the schools. He’s committed to passing a living wage law at the county level and a campaign finance reform measure to limit the influence of wealthy donors and corporations. He’s pledged to help fight to defeat "right-to-work for less" ballot measures and other anti-union provisions. Most importantly, as with all NP-backed candidates, he expects to be held accountable to the working-class and community organizations that help elect him.

Tam’s local gives special recognition to politicians who are there when it counts—the handful who walk the picket line with Local 503 members are warmly re-endorsed and supported. But even so, union members see a real difference when members of their own union run for office.

"Some endorsed legislators needed to have the union hold their feet to the fire, to make sure they voted against the takebacks on Oregon’s minimum wage increase," comments Tam. "Electing union members means we have not just a half-hearted vote for labor, but a real voice for labor."

In Diane Snyder’s case, her campaign for the Butte, Montana school board grew directly out of the experience of her union—HERE Local 427. School administrators have received substantial bonuses and raises this year, but the school board has refused to budge from an anemic 1 percent raise for district workers. The transit workers recently went out on strike, shutting down the schools for a week. "They’re screwing the people who are taking care of our kids," says Snyder, a mother of three.

"For us to be able to elect hundreds and eventually thousands of our own members, we need to build ties with women’s groups, community groups, environmentalists,  civil rights groups," says SEIU Local 880 head organizer Keith Kelleher. "We know we can’t do it on our own."

Activists in all three of these campaigns have reached well beyond their union base. In Portland, Tam is being backed by the Rainbow Coalition, the New Party, and the Oregon Wildlife Federation as well as SEIU, AFSCME, UFCW, and the NW Oregon Labor Council. In Chicago, Williams—the chief steward for SEIU Local 73 who is running for an open State Senate seat—is being supported by ACORN, the NP, and the 29th Ward People’s Assembly, as well as by the SEIU state council, AFSCME, and the state AFL-CIO.

A key aim in all three cities is to ensure that these coalitions are solidly built and will endure, regardless of one campaign’s outcome. In Chicago, for example, many of the organizations involved in the Williams race are already recruiting candidates for spring 1999 alderperson races, and see this effort as part of an emerging labor-Black-Latino independent progressive political movement that can eventually challenge the Democratic machine.

"As labor looks to build its own political power, we’re naturally going to look beyond the Democrats. We want to build our own independent labor and community based political groups that are going to be committed to our agenda and committed to electing our members to office," says Local 427 secretary-treasurer and New Party national co-chair Secky Fascione. "With its focus on working in local elections and its history of working for living wage jobs and workers’ rights, the New Party is a natural vehicle for us to do that."

Local unions are often much more impacted by the actions of local governments than by Congress, and 77 percent of elections in the U.S. are nonpartisan. These local elections (sometimes targeted for base-building by groups such as the Christian Coalition) are largely ignored by the major parties, leaving a fertile ground for independent labor-based strategies.

This kind of politics is the strongest long-term alternative to the more familiar labor strategy of "any Democrat will do." As the AFL-CIO gears up for the 1998 Congressional elections, it’s important to remember that the real future of labor political action lies in the kind of people, coalitions, and daily precinct-level work that is underway in Butte, Chicago, Portland, and beyond.