Report 2: Closing Presentations to the “Break the Grip” Conference (Sept. 20, 2020)
Originally published on 9/26/2020
Closing Three Presentations to the conference by (1) Millie Phillips, (2) Alan Benjamin and (3) Nnamdi Lumumba
(1) “Going Forward”: Presentation to Closing Plenary Session of the Conference by MILLIE PHILLIPS, Steering Committee member, Labor Fightback Network
What an amazing discussion! Let’s congratulate ourselves! What we are proposing is one of the hardest things ever done. Despite many efforts to create an independent working-class party in the U.S., generations have failed to figure out how to do it effectively.
However LCIP is an effort to learn the lessons from such efforts and to not repeat their mistakes. We are experimenting with a new approach: grounded in fundamental organizing, that is, local, bottom-up relationship-building in communities; directly engaged in the struggles of the most marginalized and oppressed, not subsuming or tokenizing their demands into the top-down fake unities advocated by the Democratic Party and non-profit industrial complex.
One thing we learned from past efforts is that there are no short cuts to success. Especially when the working class is so divided, this relationship building is an essential first step. Within those relationships, we recognize the latent power of organized labor, the only working-class institution specifically intended to represent the class as a whole and for itself, applauding a new militancy among the rank and file – and it is there – while also recognizing that much of the union leadership is still stuck depending on the Democrats at the expense of the membership, or worse.
Regardless of who is elected in November, the working class in this country will still face cuts and attacks. For example, the Democrats are not going to even try to pass Medicare for All, one of most necessary and unifying demands there is for all working-class people. Whatever happens, a movement to build a new working-class party needs to be in the streets, alongside all others fighting for the same concerns, not separate from, and certainly never above, the fray. Only by consistent solidarity can we create the trust and accountability needed to build the lasting relationships that will allow us to move forward.
The vehicle we have proposed for this is the building of labor/community coalitions for a party and of an effort within the unions to engage labor in such coalition building. We have many opportunities: Luis Angel reported on the efforts in Adelanto and McFarland, CA; small towns in CA with ICE concentration camps that could build into such a community-led break with the Democrats. Also, in CA, we have a team in Los Angeles that has been initiating this work.
We have potential in Oakland with the ILWU to get a coalition off the ground. Activists in Sacramento were among the founders of LCIP and are reviving our efforts there. In South Carolina, we already have a Labor Party ballot line. It’s time to get the party back up and running, maybe with some candidates next year.
Of course in Baltimore we have the Ujima People’s Progress Party, which is planning to run candidates as well as soon as possible. How this coalition will look in any given locale depends on the circumstances. Unlike previous efforts, we are firm supporters of self-determination. We are excited by the prospect of Black parties or those among other oppressed sectors as they may arise. This is not counterpoised to trying to unify the entire working class around its common interests.
Indeed, without parties of the oppressed, or the leadership of radical people color in unions, such as we see in the ILWU, their demands are not likely to be centered. The entire working class needs the leadership of these parties to set an agenda that does not leave any of us out.
We are about to move into our final plenary discussion. First, for some practical matters: The committees that built this conference were ad hoc for that purpose and are therefore dissolved. But we hope members of those committees will re-commit and we can form a new Continuations Committee with similar committees. If you were already part of the planning, please consider volunteering on the new committees that will convene after this conference. And, all of you, if you truly support LCIP’s goals, please let us know if you’d like to be on a Continuations Committee.
We hope that this final discussion will focus on how, practically, we we can build in our various locations.
Thank you so much for committing your weekend to this work. Now we need to commit ourselves for the long haul. Thank you to our organizing and tech teams and all the amazing work you have done to make this weekend a success. And thanks for your patience with the almost inevitable Zoom issues.
Now, I will turn this over to Sandy Eaton to facilitate our discussion.
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(2) Closing Presentation to the Conference by ALAN BENJAMIN, Editorial Board member of The Organizer Newspaper and delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council (for id. only)
[Note: This is an expanded version of the closing presentation that I delivered to the conference on September 20. I had to abridge my prepared statement because of time constraints. — A.B.]
Thank you, Donna, for your kind introduction, and thank you everybody for an incredible weekend. Comrade Clarence Thomas used the word “historic” to describe our gathering. That remains to be seen; it will be historic if we are able to carry through with our collective pledge this weekend to forge ahead and advance the struggle for independent working-class political action.
One-hundred-ninety-eight people registered for our conference, and the overwhelming majority participated at one point or another in the 8-hour zoom gathering over two days. We came from various political tendencies, including various socialist tendencies — and from various Black and Latino working-class organizations, among others. We displayed tremendous commitment and diversity.
We discussed difficult and challenging issues, often with great enthusiasm and passion. Comrade Millie Phillips pointed out in her introduction that the struggle to build and sustain a mass-based independent working-class party in this country has taken place over the past 150 years, without success. The task ahead, therefore, is onerous. But we showed that it is possible to engage in serious political discussion about the need for independent working-class politics, with lessons drawn from past defeats, with a wealth of experience among us, and with proposals on how to move forward.
We came together around a Conference Call — as comrade Connie White pointed out in her opening presentation to this gathering — that summoned us to implement the two prongs of the LCIP’s Statement of Purpose: (1) forming independent labor-community coalitions to run independent labor-community candidates at a local level, thereby laying the foundation of an independent working class party rooted in the unions and oppressed communities, and (2) building Labor Party committees in our unions to promote the two resolutions adopted by the national convention of the AFL-CIO in October 2017 that call for an end to labor’s support for “lesser-evil” politics.
Our Conference Call, as comrade Mya Shone reminded us, also summoned us to support the right to self-determination and self-organization of Blacks and other oppressed people as a condition for principled unity in building such a Labor-based party. This is what we wrote in our Conference Call:
“Such a national conference, of course, needs to incorporate the fight for independent Black working-class political action. Nnamdi Lumumba, co-convener of the Ujima People’s Progress Party, expressed well the articulation of the struggle for independent Black working-class politics and for a Labor-based party at the December ‘Break the Grip’ conference in Cleveland, stating:
“We need to organize people around their own class interests and their own interests as nationally oppressed people. Helping to break the active or even passive support to the two capitalist, imperialist and white supremacist parties has been a fundamental goal of our efforts as the Ujima People’s Progress Party, as we seek to build a Black workers-led electoral party.
“While we support a national Labor Party that recognizes both the shared and independent struggles of oppressed and exploited workers on the job and in their communities, we affirm that nationally oppressed people have to center the discussion and self-organization around their own specific oppression. … Having said that, we need to create a mass-based working-class party that says capitalism does not serve you, imperialism does not serve you, and racism does not serve you.”
Over these past two days we have reaffirmed these objectives and discussed the many ways we can begin to implement them in our own communities. It has been an extremely rich discussion.
Some people criticized us for convening this conference before the elections, calling our effort a “distraction.” Our gathering has proven them wrong. We were right to get the ball rolling today and to affirm a truly independent working-class road forward. A statement issued a couple of days prior to the conference by the Labor Fightback Network, one of the co-sponsors of “Break the Grip,” expressed this best, stating:
“No matter who wins in November, the bipartisan deficit hawks will be swooping down to shred whatever we have left, coming after Social Security, Medicare and our postal service. Pretty much whatever has ‘public’ in its name will continue to have a bull’s eye on its back, but the class struggle will become ever more intense.
“The weapons of the working class, our unions and our community-based movements, will need to be strengthened and brought to bear. It’s a question of survival. Dependence on the Democratic Party has weakened their fighting spirit and blunted their ability to fight the class enemy that it serves. We must learn to go on the offense while still playing defense, organizing rank-and-file and grassroots initiatives, uniting them into a mighty river to wash away the neoliberal, neoconservative mire of austerity, racism, war, and the lingering stench of fascism.”
Let there be no doubt: Working people will be made to shoulder the burden of a crisis inherent in an economic system, capitalism, which is in terminal decay.
Others have criticized us for going ahead and re-launching the fight for a Labor Party, as per the second prong of our Statement of Purpose. It’s not yet time, our detractors say. To this we have answered: Yes, it is time; in fact, the fight for a Labor Party is long overdue. The two AFL-CIO resolutions on independent politics must not remain paper resolutions. We need to bore into the labor movement with this effort, as comrade Ken Morgan proposed, and build organized support for these AFL-CIO resolutions in our unions [see statement by Nancy Wohlforth]. We must understand that a major obstacle facing the working class today is the subordination of the trade unions, the only class-based organizations of the working class, to the Democratic Party. We have to help remove this obstacle today — not tomorrow.
The time is now, when millions of people are in motion. Twenty million people were in the streets, despite the pandemic, to protest the police murder of George Floyd and countless other Black and Brown people. There has been an upsurge in the labor movement — from the educators’ strikes in the Red States — then in Los Angeles, Oakland and Chicago. There has been a reactivation of union organizing drives and strikes by meatpackers, UPS drivers, janitors, and other sectors of the workforce.
When will be the right time — when our public services, our jobs, and our communities have been totally dismantled by the twin parties of the bosses, when our collective strength as a class to fight back has been eroded?
Millions of people are looking for a political alternative to the twin parties of the bosses. Every poll confirms this. Many have gone through the experience, yet again, of the Bernie Sanders campaign, only to find their candidate urge support for a warmonger and Wall Street favorite. How many more times do folks have to go through this experience to realize that the Democratic Party cannot be reformed? That orientation is a dead end.
And let us be clear: The party that we seek to build is a working class party — not a middle-class People’s Party. It’s a party that projects the fightbacks and independent mass actions that we build — fightbacks that we discussed in each of our breakout sessions this weekend — into the political arena so that we are not sent into battle against our class enemy, as comrade Mya pointed out in her introductory report, with one arm tied behind our back.
At this point I would like to address one of the difficult questions that came during our conference: Is support for a Black-worker led political party “divisive,” as a few people asserted in this discussion? Is support for the right of Black people to self-determination “divisive”? Our answer is an unequivocal NO; it is NOT divisive. Support for the right to self-determination, including the fight to build Black working-class parties, is, in fact, a precondition for building principled working-class unity.
We must understand that the wealth of this nation was built upon the genocide of the indigenous peoples and the blood and sweat of the millions of Black slaves brought to these shores from Africa as chattel. We must understand that white supremacy, in its more overt or covert forms, is a scourge that continues to plague our country and our labor movement.
I am sure that comrade Nnamdi will take this up further in his concluding speech, but for my part, and given my own political background, I would like to quote from the “Freedom Now!” 1963 resolution of the Socialist Workers Party to underscore why I believe that we must support both a Black Workers Party and a Labor Party.
The “Freedom Now!” resolution helps us understand why there is no contradiction between these two struggles. The resolution notes that, “the labor and Black movements march along their own paths, but they march to a common destination, and the freedom of the Blacks from oppression and of the workers from exploitation can be achieved only through the victory of their common struggle against capitalism. … Blacks cannot win their goal of equality without an alliance with the working class.”
The resolution goes on to note that the “tempos of development of the two movements are uneven,” and that Blacks may first want to unite in their own party in order that they can be able to bring about an alliance of equals, where they [the Blacks] can be reasonably sure that their demands and needs cannot be neglected or betrayed by their allies.”
This must be clear: You cannot fight effectively against racism if you don’t wage the most resolute fight against capitalism; conversely, you cannot fight effectively against capitalism if you don’t place front and center the fight against racism.
I would like to point to an example from my own experience of why building Black caucuses in our unions, or even in our Labor parties, is not enough — and is often a roadblock to the fight for Black rights and self-determination.
In 1998, the Second National Convention of the Labor Party, after much debate, voted to endorse a resolution calling for a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal. The resolution was introduced by the Labor Party’s Black Caucus. Not long after this LP convention, many of us on the LCIP Organizing Committee — myself, Nancy Wohlforth, Baldemar Velasquez, Ralph Schoenman and Mya Shone — organized an international delegation to the Justice Department in Washington, DC, to demand a new trial for Mumia. We brought 1.1 million signatures in support of this demand. Our delegation included Martin Luther King III and other luminaries.
When we asked the Labor Party leadership to join our delegation, given the convention vote, we were told that the Labor Party would not participate because one of its affiliates believed that Mumia was a “cop-killer.” And so a convention resolution was torpedoed.
These are uncertain but exciting times, full of opportunities. There are openings all across the country to launch independent labor-community coalitions that select their candidates and platforms democratically on a local level — expressing the consequences of national policies locally, such as the need for Medicare for All, or Black community control of the police, or closing detention centers and freeing all those detained, among so many other pressing matters.
• We heard this weekend about efforts underway to save the Port of Oakland and the thousands of Longshore, Teamster and other union jobs from the predatory land-grabbing Oakland A’s — a corporate drive that will continue and expand the gentrification of a predominantly Black city, yet another effort at ethnic-cleansing. Can we not seek to build the resistance to this corporate offensive by expanding the fightback, building a labor-community coalition, and running our own candidates, mandated and answerable to the coalition and the community in Oakland?
• We heard from comrade Luis Angel about the struggles by immigrant rights activists against Democratic Party politicians and policies — both at the federal level (with 3 million people deported under Obama) and at the local level, where cities have contracted with private for-profit prisons and detention centers to warehouse women and children under conditions where their very lives are at risk because of the pandemic. We heard that in places like Mcfarland and Adelanto, California, activists are fighting to close these detention centers, these concentration camps, and that they are open to building local labor-community coalitions to take over the city councils and shut down the centers and free the detainees.
These efforts, I should add, can be enjoined to the fight for papers for all, tearing down the Wall of Shame, and repealing the “free trade” agreements that force millions of peasants and youth off their lands in foreign countries and propel them on the road to exile in the United States. That is why I would like to salute comrade Liliana from Mexicali and relay her invitation to support and participate in the Binational Conference Against NAFTA 2.0 and the Wall of Shame, For Labor Rights for All, which will take place online October 10 and in person in Tecate, Baja California.
I should like to add here that I fully agree with a comrade who stated in the discussion that we must call to shut down the entire prison-industrial complex, with its hundreds of concentration camps where millions of Black and Brown political prisoners have been warehoused for years. Free all the political prisoners!
• We’ve heard about the efforts to preserve the South Carolina Labor Party and its ballot status. Can we not in 2022 run candidates for state-wide offices that could set an example for what the labor movement can and must do to lay the foundation of a mass-based independent Labor Party?
• And we heard about the efforts of the comrades in the Ujima People’s Party to seek ballot status and to run independent candidates as soon as possible in Maryland. Black-led working class electoral parties, with election campaigns that are open to all working people, are themselves a form of labor-community coalition that we must support.
So, yes, the forms of these labor-community coalitions will vary, but the bottom-up method, rooted in workers’ democracy, is the same.
One final point: A number of comrades raised the question of a Day of Action — which could include mass strikes and even general strikes — in the event that Trump attempts to steal the election. We must be clear about this: The fight against voter suppression is our fight. The fight to defend the right to vote is our fight. Millions of workers and oppressed people died in this country to secure this right.
In 2000, the Democrats threw their own candidate, Al Gore, under the bus by refusing to take on the electoral commissions and courts and by refusing to mobilize millions in the streets. They were unwilling to expose and confront the institutions of the bourgeois State, thereby enabling the Constitutional coup d’etat that brought G.W. Bush to power. Hundreds of thousands of Black voters in Florida had their votes stolen. Gore — whatever one may think of his totally reactionary policies — should have won, even with the Electoral College holdover from the slavocracy.
It is up to working-class people to defend the very bourgeois democratic rights that have been won through bitter struggles by working people and that have been eroded continually. Let us entrust to the incoming Continuations Committee the task of networking with unions and community organizations to see how we can best join the fightback against any attempt by Trump and his cronies to steal the election in November.
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(3) Closing Presentation to the conference by NNAMDI LUMUMBA, Co-convener, Ujima People’s Progress Party
I want to thank all the comrades who participated through the weekend. I too agree that open discussion among socialists, among anti-capitalists is very important. It is crucial to know who you’re working with and to understand the intricacies of the struggles that we all bring.
I think that we are in a process that will lead towards a real labor party that’s based in the unions and in the oppressed communities. I do not think we can skip this process, but I think there’s much work to be done. There are no assumptions that we should bring into this process that are untouchable. I think we really have to use history as a guide.
Before I go further, I want to state that I received a letter from a comrade who is locked down. He’s a prisoner of conscience who heard about this conference, and he’s close to us in the Ujima People’s Progress Party. He asked that I read this, but because of time I’m going to ask that we transcribe it to go with the discussion so that it is not lost. I really appreciate that the brother took his time and resources to write to this conference. [See transcribed letter in this conference report.]
I also want to read a very brief statement written by Karl Marx:
“Whilst the cotton industry introduced child slavery in England it gave in the United States a stimulus to a transformation of the early more or less patriarchal slavery, into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage earners in Europe and in America needed for its pedestal slavery pure and simple.”
We will not fix the contradictions on slavery by building socialism over the pedestal of slavery, genocide, and colonialism. Not only will you not do it, we won’t allow you to do it. You will not be able to use the oppressed nations and have partnership with conscious African workers in a process that delegitimizes what history has done to us to take our humanity.
It is not a question that we’re asking anybody to help us. We will be free and self-determined on our own terms. We know that there must be unity of all workers against imperialism and against capitalism, but it won’t come off our back. It won’t come off our blood and sweat. Ask those who have been able to benefit from being a wageworker under slavery, under colonialism. Ask them to make the contradictions, to make the sacrifices first. We’ve done enough sacrifices.
We’re going to have honest conversations regardless of our national origin, our gender, our sexual orientation. All of us come into this discussion understanding that imperialism is the enemy, that the capitalist ruling class is the enemy. But it has also created divisions that need to be worked out. We’ve got lots of work to do, comrades.
There is not going to be a Labor Party that exists with African people who are tied to African suffering, who are going to give up the right of self-determination. We have seen forces who now are from the Black community join organizations like the DSA. And I’m not debating the DSA’s politics, I’m talking about the type of Black people who join the DSA ain’t the people that you find in the hood. These ain’t the same people you find doing the day-to-day work and struggle that makes it possible that mothers can feed their children, that people can get educated, that people can get healthcare one way or another, that people find housing. These ain’t those people. They can join whatever organizations and do whatever they want, but if you want to bring African people conscious of their working-class and national interest you’re going to have to have a discussion about our right to be self-determined and self-organized.
We come to this process honestly saying that we’re anti-imperialist, that we’re anti-capitalist. We’re anti-colonialist, antiracist, antisexist. We are pro-liberation. We believe in radical unions. But we’re not going to compromise Black Power. Black Power is not on the table for discussion. Either we’ll have it in the alliance, or we’ll have it out of the alliance. But we will have Black Power.
It’s an important discussion, and we think it’s important that we spread the discussion. I’m not asking you to necessarily give up your politics to be able to accept that position, but if you want this alliance then you have to make some considerations to how you want to move forward.
It’s not an easy process. I don’t expect this one discussion to persuade anybody that that’s the right thing to do. But I’m telling you, it’s going to come up and we’re going to continue to have it. And when we get tired of having the damn conversation, you’re going to be talking to yourself. You’re not going to have fighters from Black and Brown communities come into this process and this specific discussion about the participation of oppressed communities to be dictated to. We told you what the condition is for the relationship. We fought this long without your support, and we’ll continue to fight this long without your support. That’s important.
I also want to say that the struggle to get on the ballot is not the most important question that we have. The most important question that all of us should be worried about is how do we build working-class power?
If the electoral process could have done it, it would have done it a long time ago. If anybody in this discussion believes that electoral politics is going to free us from imperialism and capitalism, I believe you’re in the wrong discussion. It is a tactic that we will use as long as is feasible.
This is a lesson coming out of the history of struggle in the African community: When we didn’t have the right to vote, we still fought. When we couldn’t join the racist-ass Democratic or Republican parties, we still fought. We built our own independent organizations. We took up our own self-defense. We built our own institutions of mutual aid to feed ourselves and to bury our children and our parents in the goddamned ground that this racist settler state stole us to.
It’s not acceptable that we be told to sacrifice our right to national liberation as a nation of oppressed people. Yes, class unity is important, but not off our backs. Not off the backs of our children. It is serious, because when we have these struggles today around police brutality, it is not a general workers’ question. It is a question of how the African American community is being treated. It is a question of how the indigenous community is being treated.
We die and disappear; we don’t end up on damn milk cartons. No one cares because we’re just supposed to be dead. Because that’s how America built itself, off the bones and blood of African and indigenous people. You want to tell me about the unity of a workers’ struggle? Fuck a workers’ struggle if it wants to opportunistically build itself off the suffering of oppressed people while denying those same people the right of national liberation and self-determination. Centuries of colonial oppression cannot be solved by simply winning demands for jobs for all or free education for all. Our contradiction started with the loss of our sovereignty, colonial theft of land and forced labor as chattel. African people had full employment under slavery so full employment doesn’t solve our contradiction. Freedom and self-determination does. African and indigenous peoples winning our national liberation is a strategic part of defeating U.S. capitalism. Maybe we will be your allies, maybe we won’t, as self-determined people it’s our decision. It is our choice.
We helped build this conference because we made the conscious choice to find working class allies who understand that we must work together to free ourselves from capitalism and imperialism. But if that is not good enough for you then it won’t be good enough. We came to explain our strategy and our work of building a party in the state of Maryland.
The truth is that it’s open to everybody. Some people can’t even imagine the fact that a Black workers’ party could lead white people. You just make the assumption that a Black Party is exclusively Black. That is the racism that you have to deal with. We will go build a workers’ movement led by Black workers in this state and wherever African people fight to build Black power and national liberation. We will have self-determination, and we will only have allies that respect our right to be a free and self-determined nation, led by the African working class.