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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Oct 8, 2014, 10:30 am

After Defeating Democrats, Will Ohio Unionists Form a New Labor Party?

BY Amien Essif

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Three independent city council members backed by unions won city council seats in Lorain, Ohio. What's next? (  

The relationship between the American labor movement and the Democratic Party has long been fairly predictable. For the better part of a century, labor has depended on the Democrats for favorable policy, and the Democrats have depended on labor for votes. Few from either side of the bargain anticipate an immediate future where that arrangement will be upset.

So when rumblings started coming out of Ohio late last year about breaking with the Democrats, many in the labor movement were startled. Last November, in the small county of Lorain, Ohio, local labor leaders who were intimately wedded to the Democratic establishment broke rank and supported three independent pro-labor candidates in county elections, all of whom won.

The act of rebellion in a union-dense county gained national attention as a story of labor flexing its muscles—and winning—against a Democratic establishment drifting rightward.

Considering Lorain along with the election of Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, the first socialist in decades to be elected to public office in a major American city, Jennifer Roesch wrote for Jacobin after last year’s elections that “for the first time since 2000, there is a space opening up in mainstream politics to the left of the Democratic Party.”

But just who or what will claim that space is still up for debate—especially in Lorain itself. Sawant’s campaign, run by the Socialist Alternative party, insisted on the need for a national party for the working class and a break with the Democrats. Lorain, on the other hand, saw a small group of well-connected labor leaders organize an insurgency against local Democrats. And they did so without articulating a clear political vision, instead projecting mixed messages about building a political alternative in the city—at times intending to pull the Democrats left and then make amends, at times rejecting party politics altogether. And at still other times, they audaciously assumed the mantle of a new labor party movement.

The Lorain County Independent Labor Party

Lorain’s rebellion began in April 2013, following a major clash with Democrats that March, according to Jim Slone, former UAW Local 2192 president who now serves as president of Lorain’s UAW Community Action Program Council, the social justice arm of the union. For nearly three years, local unions had worked with the Lorain City Council and former mayor Anthony Krasienko to establish a project labor agreement (PLA), which finally passed in 2011, mandating that the city negotiate the terms of labor with the local Building and Construction Trades Council before taking bids from contractors to carry out public construction projects.

But in March 2013, newly elected Democratic Mayor Chase Ritenauer decided to scrap the PLA—a move that received praise from the National Right to Work Committee. To make matters worse, in April, as Russell Saltamontes notes, the city helped break a weeklong strike of around 200 garbage collectors represented by the Teamsters, with Mayor Ritenauer himself riding around in a truck with scabbing workers brought in from outside Ohio.

Ritenauer tells In These Times that for him, ditching the PLA was a practical decision, not an ideological one, and he sees himself as anything but anti-union. “Some people will back you, some people will back your opponent. ... I’ve got a lot of friends who are in a union, whether they’re rank-and-file or whether they’re part of leadership. I’ve got support in labor.”

Slone sees it differently. “It was very clear that the mayor had his agenda, that he was going to try to tear labor apart, that he was going to try to destroy everything that we had worked to put into place,” the UAW staffer says.

The repeal of the PLA and the failure of the garbage collectors’ strike were the last two straws for labor. In April, union leaders Jim Slone; Harry Williamson, president of the Lorain County AFL-CIO; and Joe Thayer, the local federation’s former president; decided to end their cooperation with the Democratic Party and find favorable independent candidates to back in Lorain County elections. And fast—City Council and County Commission races were only six months away.

Over a series of meetings and innumerable phone calls, the “core group,” as Williamson puts it, helped launch the campaign of Joshua Thornsberry, a school teacher, who would run as an independent for Lorain City Council. Greg Argenti, the owner of an auto body shop who had already decided to run as independent would soon get the full backing of labor to claim a seat on the same council. And Mark F. Craig, independent city councilor in Elyria, Ohio, would get a similar endorsement (though he had been serving as an independent since 2008). They drew support from over a dozen union locals in addition to those associated with the Lorain County AFL-CIO, which took the helm of the operation.

Although labor still pledged to endorse three of the Democratic city councilors up for election in Lorain, the independent campaigns angered many in the party. In September, Williamson and Thayer received an unexpected letter, signed by Paul Adams, chairman of the City Democratic Party of Lorain, Ohio, stating that if they did not rescind their support for independents and back only Democratic candidates within 10 days, they would not be allowed to attend party meetings.

Williamson, the Lorain AFL-CIO president, knew he had fallen out of favor with party leadership for launching the independent political initiative. Although he hadn’t anticipated disciplinary action from local Democratic leadership, he says that he refused to be “discouraged from following my beliefs.” In the end, both Williamson and Thayer let the 10-day ultimatum expire and were summarily stripped of their duties in the city party and banned from future meetings.

By October, Thornsberry and his Democratic incumbent opponent Frank DeTillio, who outspent him by about 17 percent, had shelled out a combined total of almost $19,000, which local news called one of the most expensive campaigns in the county’s history. Slone says it was also an “old-school ground-and-pound” affair, with volunteers fanning out to knock on thousands of doors.

At one point, the campaigners ordered a batch of T-shirts that read “Lorain County Independent Labor Party.” Williamson, who has the leftovers stashed in his garage, notes that no official party exists by that name, but that the T-shirts made a good uniform to wear to City Council meetings. “We haven’t filed paperwork or anything. But it does make a statement: ‘We are labor. We support independents.’”

An Idea with a Long History

The dream of forming an independent political party to represent working people in the US has resurfaced periodically on the Left for at least a century. Following World War I, a burgeoning labor movement turned its attention to the electoral arena, although organizers never succeeded in uniting all the nation’s self-proclaimed labor parties under one tent. Beginning in 1943 with the establishment of the first political action committee (PAC) by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), labor became firmly committed to the Democrats. Despite occasional grumbles from the Left, the relationship remained stable.

In 1996, labor activists attempted once again to form a new party for workers. One thousand four hundred delegates representing national and local labor unions from across the U.S. convened in Cleveland, Ohio, to form a new Labor Party which, despite several conventions and nearly a decade of issues-based advocacy, never put a candidate in national office before going dormant in 2007.

Five years after the Labor Party suspended most activities, former national organizer Mark Dudzic says he senses some revival of the spirit of a labor party. “We’re beginning to see signs that people are looking for a way to develop independent working class politics, and I think Lorain is [a] very hopeful [development] in that context,” he says, noting that Sawant’s victory, facilitated by an organized political party with national coherence, was last year’s true headliner.

Many of the key figures in Lorain’s labor coup had not heard of the initiative for a national Labor Party. Jim Slone, the former UAW local president, thinks the idea could gain some traction.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if [a Labor Party] cropped up again,” he says, but adds that he’d have to see “what they stood for” before deciding to get involved.

In her 2012 book Independents Rising, Jacqueline Salit points out that “independent” and “third-party,” though often used interchangeably, are not always the same thing.

“There is no real third-party movement in America today,” Salit writes. “But there is an anti-party movement, one that is being organized and shaped by diverse influences.” In Lorain, the discussion on which camp to join is still unfolding.

For Slone, the creation of a labor coalition was essential, asserting that unions in Lorain were only able to push back against the Democratic Party because they formed a political bloc.

“[We said] your issues are my issues and my issues are your issues, and the things that we disagree on, we throw them in the corner, we don’t talk about them,” Slone recalls. “And when we get everything taken care of that we agree on, we find out there’s very little left in the corner.”

One Year In

For the past nine months, Thornsberry and Argenti have served on the Lorain City Council as independents alongside nine Democrats, and they have a little over one year left in their first terms. By all accounts, there has been no revolution in Lorain, and the leaders of the Democratic Party have been talking with labor leaders Williamson and Thayer about ending their exile from the party.

Meanwhile, the two independent council members have been integral to several initiatives to benefit Lorain’s working class.

When reports of union-busting at Camaco, an auto parts factory in the county, reached City Council, Thornsberry and Argenti worked with another labor-backed councilor, Democratic councilman Brian Gates, to pass a resolution in June defending the workers’ right to unionize. Thornsberry and Argenti also helped tackle the issue of the lost Project Labor Agreement, allying with several other councilors to strengthen the current legislation governing city-funded construction work.

When Mayor Ritenauer snubbed labor and repealed the PLA in March 2013, he passed a new plan to govern construction work. The plan nixed the requirement that contractors use a unionized workforce, dropped the hiring requirements from 75 percent to 25 percent local labor, and raised the bar on the size of the projects implicated, so that the agreement applies only to projects with budgets of more than $2 million.

Sponsored by Councilman Tony Richardson (one of the three city council Democrats endorsed by labor in the last election), amendments to the standing labor agreement will apply to all projects over $250,000 rather than $2 million; and will raise hiring goals from 25 percent to 50 percent local labor, from 9 percent to 20 percent minority, and from 7 percent to 15 percent female.

Slone says the new agreement is a bit “watered-down”—unlike the former mayor’s project labor agreement, it makes no distinction between union and non-union labor, for instance. But Slone says he is not disappointed in the independents.

“We’re only a year out,” he says, “so they’re just moving along, doing the things that they promised and working on the ones that they know they can readily get some resolution on.”

The Future of the (Unofficial) Lorain Independent Labor Party

While Lorain’s independents have succeeded in pushing pro-worker policies, the question of whether the break with the Democrats will have any impact beyond Ohio remains to be seen.

“Local politics has its own dynamic,” says Daniel Schlozman, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

Schlozman thinks the Left often mistakes local independent campaigns as harbingers of a national third party, when in fact upsurges like the one on Lorain do not “scale up to be a story about national politics.” This is because labor and other local players have much more freedom to challenge local political parties.

He points out that in states with nonpartisan municipal elections, in which candidates do not declare party affiliation, “The story of dissident unions overthrowing nominally Democratic officials is a total non-story. It only becomes a story when they are rejecting the party label.”

Of course, this is precisely what labor did in Lorain last year: They turned away from the two major political parties. Such a move, though more common locally than federally, remains rare in American politics, so Lorain’s residents are not the only ones interested in how the story plays out.

One year after the independent election campaign, the relationship between labor and the Democrats in Lorain “pretty much still sucks” in Slone’s words. “There’s a big rift,” he says, “and it looks like it’s going to continue for a while.”

At the annual Lorain Labor Day celebration sponsored by local unions, Latino activist and insurance agent Tim Carrion announced his bid for mayor in 2015—possibly as an independent—and cameras in the crowd were soon snapping photos of Williamson raising the right hand of Mayor Ritenauer’s possible challenger.

Carrion, a colleague of Williamson’s in the Lorain Veteran African-American Latino and Union Council (VALUs), says he caught the attention of labor because his activism and his politics “really lends itself well to the whole labor movement” and his bid for office “is about our working-class people. This is about benefitting and meeting the needs of those people who have really built this community.”

Williamson had heard that members of the city’s Democratic party, who were in the audience, were unhappy that the same labor leaders who supported independents Thornsberry and Argenti are now planning to back a candidate against the current Democratic mayor.

But Lorain City Democratic Party Chairperson Paul Adams is still trying to pull the rogue labor leaders back into the fold, and leaders are entertaining his peacemaking offers. Adams says that he has had “productive conversations” with the independents and their readmission to the party is a matter of “when, not if.” 

Which isn’t completely surprising, because labor never made a clean break from the Democrats. While Williamson and Thayer were suspended from the City Party, they remained on the executive committee of the County Party. As far as Slone is concerned, he mantains that he’s still a Democrat, but he’s “going to stay a labor Democrat,” meaning aloof from the dictates of the party and committed to the labor movement.

The independents in Lorain continue to orient themselves toward the Democratic Party, hoping to teach its leadership a lesson, and eventually make amends rather than splitting off permanently. Thornsberry says he looks forward to a time in Lorain County when “the Democratic Party wakes up and no longer takes labor for granted in our particular county” so that unions and the party “can form a peace based on helping each other and mutual respect.”

This goal of the Lorain independents may come as a disappointment to those on the Left who are committed to permanently breaking from the two-party system and forming a national Labor Party. Mark Dudzic, the former Labor Party organizer, would like to see the Lorain labor leaders turn their “independent labor party” rhetoric into a reality.

“There have always been these hopeful efforts to pull the Democratic Party to the left,” says Dudzic, “They sometimes succeed for a short period of time or around limited goals, ... but they don’t have a strategic vision about how to change real power relations and build power for working people on a long-term basis.”

Nevertheless, he admires the nerve required of Lorain activists to swim against the two-party tide and believes it is one of the first steps toward a national Labor Party: “Those folks are clearly part of a movement that’s searching for a voice for working people.”

It may have a blurry outline, but the movement in Lorain expresses a clear discontent with the rightward shift of the Democratic Party, especially in its attitude toward organized labor. This message, as Dudzic suggests, is being relayed in political races across the country.

“My understanding,” says Tim Meegan, independent candidate for alderman in Chicago’s 33rd ward in 2015 and a member of the Chicago Teachers Union, “is that Lorain is an overwhelmingly union town, the Democratic Party wasn’t representing the interests of the workers, so they took it upon themselves to run their own candidates. ... We find that inspiring. We’re trying to do the same thing in Chicago.”

Jess Spear, the Socialist Alternative party candidate who will face off against Democratic Speaker of the Washington House of Representatives in November, took most of her cues from her fellow party member Kshama Sawant, but was also galvanized by what happened in Lorain.

“To see labor take a step outside the Democratic Party and run as independent, it’s showing the way forward.” She argues that even small left-wing independent campaigns can inspire those disillusioned with the Democratic Party with the confidence “that we can build an alternative party for the 99 percent.”

Whether the split between labor and the Democratic Party is temporary or permanent, the ongoing peace talks between the Democrats and labor leaders haven’t quelled labor’s urge to become the dominant political force in the county. Activists are aware that if Carrion runs as an independent candidate for mayor in 2015 with labor’s backing, it could burn yet another bridge back to the Democratic Party. And, always careful to qualify that it’s not official, members of the core group still like to call themselves the “Lorain Independent Labor Party."

Despite his short-term goal of bringing the Democrats around to the interests of labor, council member Thornsberry also holds a more radical vision of the American political landscape in the long term. He was only 15 when the Labor Party held its founding convention in Cleveland, but the independent city councilor lights up when considering the prospect of a political party for workers.

“We need a third party choice, whether you call it the Labor Party or the Progressive Party,” Thornsberry says. “I think that’s what is needed at all levels of government.”

Lorain unionists are searching for the best way to assert the political power they clearly possess, separate from the Democratic Party. Though Lorain’s labor leaders have no official line on the future of the movement, their vow to support a candidate of any party or no party so long as that candidate supports them could be the beginnings of a party line. If labor can repeat its independent upset in 2015 by ousting a Democratic mayor, elected officials and fledgling candidates will know that staying on the right side of unions is necessary to win elections. Whether that translates into a long-term independent labor party will depend on just how far Lorain's unionists are willing to stray from the Democrats.

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Amien Essif is a regular contributor to Working In These Times and maintains a blog called The Gazine, which focuses on consumerism, gentrification, and technology with a Luddite bent. His work has also appeared on the Guardian and CounterPunch. You can find him using Twitter reluctantly: @AmienChicago

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