Brett Bursey

Labor Candidates in the Carolinas

Headed into November’s elections, workers around the country are short on choices. Practically everywhere, they will be forced to go to the ballot box and choose from one of two bosses’ candidates — or not vote at all.  In South Carolina House District 69, however, it seems workers will finally have the choice of a candidate representing labor.  The South Carolina Labor Party and the state AFL-CIO are throwing their weight behind Brett Bursey, a long-time labor and anti-war activist, who will be the Labor Party’s first candidate, after over a decade in existence. This is certainly a positive step forward for South Carolina and an example for unions nationally.

Bursey would have been one of two workers’ candidates in the Carolinas, as the North Carolina Families First Party, newly formed by the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC, SEIU Local 2008), with the backing and financial support of the national Service Employees International Union (SEIU), had also threatened to run candidates against right-wing Democrats in the state.

After having initially failed to get the necessary 85,000 signatures to qualify as a state party for the November general election, they targeted their campaign against one Democrat in particular, Congressman Larry Kissell. The plan was to run Wendell Fant, for whom they gathered nearly double the necessary signatures to get on the ballot. Fant, however, likely under strong pressure, recently decided not to run after all.

These are just the latest in a number of candidates thrown up by the labor movement this year. It is true that most of these campaigns fizzled out before they really had a chance to develop. Nonetheless, we are likely witnessing the first rumblings of a shift in a certain layer of labor leaders, who are under pressure from the rank and file after two years of Obama’s presidency with little to show for labor’s support in 2008. What is key is to work to bring together these disparate movements in the direction of independent labor politics, into a single political party of, by, and for working people: a mass party of labor.

The SEIU/NCFF effort in North Carolina is instructive for several reasons.  It shows the tremendous independent clout that the organized labor movement has.  Within a short period of time, with the help of trained staff and activists on the ground, the necessary signatures to get Fant on the ballot were collected with little trouble. In addition SEIU’s national organization pumped over $1 million into the effort in North Carolina.  While labor cannot compete with the financial resources of big business, it is the only organized force with sufficient financial resources — and above all numbers — to place itself on the map against the bosses’ parties.

Interestingly, polls taken shortly before Fant dropped out of the race indicated he was likely to receive around 15% of the vote. However, of even greater interest is the fact that the votes he was “taking away” from the “Big Two” parties were coming mostly from the Republican challenger, not the Democratic incumbent. This should be remembered every time someone says that a challenger to the left will “steal” votes from the Democrats. The fact is, in the absence of a party genuinely representing working people, the workers’ vote is split between the bosses’ parties, and often “none of the above” gets more votes than the other two put together.

The NCFF campaign is also interesting because it gives us a potential window into the peculiar ways that labor alternatives may develop in the future. The party was formed because SEIU had promised to “hold accountable” those who voted against the Obama health care bill. While we understand that this health care bill was not “reform” at all, but another handout to the big insurance companies, not all workers have drawn the same conclusion. Far more important than the reasons the party was formed, is the fact that it was launched by organized labor for the expressed purpose of challenging the Democratic Party in the state.

In the coming years, all kinds of temporary and amorphous formations may be put forward by various sectors of the labor movement as they begin to break from their traditional allegiance to the Democrats. In the case of South Carolina, the Labor Party, which lost momentum in part because it did not run candidates in the 2000 elections, yet remained in existence in a handful of areas, was revived for the 2010 midterm elections. To simply denounce such efforts because we don’t agree 100% with their program or candidates would be to cut ourselves off from the most advanced layers of workers, who are seeking a way out of the political impasse.

Unfortunately, many on the left took just such a stance when NCFF was formed, at the very time when organizers and national SEIU officials were putting forward the idea that it was an example that should be taken up by the labor movement nationally. For our part, we wholeheartedly agree with these leaders when they say that the labor movement should take up the running of independent labor candidates. And urgently. The key now is to mobilize the rank and file and use the movement’s considerable resources to put these words into action.

 That is why Brett Bursey’s campaign in SC is so important. His calls for universal health care as a right, greater expenditure on education, and the repeal of South Carolina’s anti-labor legislation should resonate with working class voters in the state and beyond. This campaign is an important start, but we think the Labor Party should organize to run more candidates, both in SC and nationally. The two-party system cannot be challenged effectively in one state alone.

It is interesting that some of the most advanced political conclusions are being drawn by workers in the more “backwards” states of the South. In fact, it is precisely in these states that organized labor is at its weakest. North and South Carolina are 50th and 48th in the country when it comes to union density. But it is where organized labor is smallest that its ties to the Democratic Party establishment are also weakest. The local labor leaders have been to a greater or lesser degree “on their own” in a rather hostile environment for quite some time.

As union jobs are “off-shored” to the South by corporations in search of non-union labor, the stage is being set for the workers of this vast region to play a key role in the coming awakening of the US working class. It is incumbent on class conscious workers from across the country to lend our support, take up the examples, and learn the lessons from these and other independent labor campaigns around the country.

NCFF leaders say that they are going to run candidates in 2012. North Carolina workers should throw their energies into making sure this happens. In the meantime, workers who agree that labor needs its own, mass, political voice should join the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor and help us promote this idea nationally.

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