A Week In The Life ANTHONY MAZZOCCHI: US workers' party in class of its own

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER THE Labor Party may lack, it isn't modesty. The leader of America's newest political party sits in a small office north of downtown Washington. It looks more like a student's study than the heart of an electoral machine. Anthony Mazzocchi is 72 but seems two decades younger, a little grizzled perhaps, but nowhere near old enough to have grown up in the Depression and have survived the Battle of the Bulge.

The Labor Party has made a modest start, and it will take a lot of time - 10 years, he thinks - before it is anything more. But last week, Mr Mazzocchi and his party took the first steps forwards, deciding for the first time that it will start fielding candidates at elections. If the party convention they held sounds a little like a Labour Party conference of a decade or so ago, then that's partly because the party has learnt from what Labour achieved in Britain. If it doesn't sound much like a Labour Party conference circa 1998, then that's because Labour, as the Conservatives did before them, has learnt at the feet of American politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. American party conferences today are pure theatre, with precious little politics.

Mr Mazzocchi stands solidly against both parties, and their style. Their membership is of little concern to them, he says; and both are fundamentally the parties of organised capitalism. He wants a party that is based - squarely and honestly - on class lines, a working-class party for working- class men and women; and he wants a party that is about its members. "The bosses have two parties," read T-shirts at the convention. "Now we have one of our own."

He left Washington last Sunday for Pittsburgh, Steeltown USA, to set up the convention. "There was a lot of work to do," he says simply: fax machines and telephone lines needed to be set up, banners to hang, a sound system to get into working order. For the Democrats and Republicans, this is a problem solved with the application of overwhelming amounts of money, cash that has been earned by fair means or foul. For the Labor Party - funded by a few unions, but opposed by many more - there isn't much cash, but there is goodwill. There were favours to be called in: Mr Mazzocchi's own union, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers' Union, supplied 30 or 40 people, and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers pitched in as well. It had to be ready by Thursday night, when the delegates were due to arrive.

First, there was solid political work to be done among the party's committees, starting on Tuesday. There was discussion of the party's policies - which focus on workers' rights and a national health care system on the Canadian model.

The delegates started arriving on Thursday night. They were a mixture of people, mostly representatives of labour unions. There were 1,400 of them from a membership base that is already 10,000. They would vote with cards, as with the old block vote of the Labour Party - cards that indicate whether the speaker represents him or herself, a local union or an international union that spans the US and Canada.

Friday was the first day. The party thrashed out on the floor the subject of election candidates: not whether to do it, but how. They were addressed by Buzz Hargrove, leader of the Canadian Auto-Workers Union, and George Becker, the steel union chief. Mr Becker is not a member; but as Mr Mazzocchi notes wryly: "It was Pittsburgh."

Saturday was focused on the party's local structure. There could only be chapters where there was a minimum of 250 members, Mr Mazzocchi said. Growing a substantial grassroots membership is what Labor is all about at the moment. "We want to be larger than any party," he says. "The Democrats and Republicans don't really enlist people. And unless you have 250 people, you don't really have a party: you have a gesture."

Michael Moore, the filmmaker and satirist of corporate greed, is a member, and he spoke on Saturday. Perhaps as importantly, he gave the party the royalties from his book: a hefty $10,000 (pounds 6,000).

Sunday morning was passed discussing resolutions from delegates. Some were voted down, such as a proposal to nationalise the means of production. Others were hotly debated all day. If there was one part of the weekend that Mr Mazzocchi really enjoyed, it was this. "The highlight was seeing people from about every state debate and argue."

On Monday it was back to the office. "We have to pay a lot of bills and figure out what we do next," he says. "We know we have to fight to get into the centre of things," he adds. "But we've proven that we can put a critical mass together." As for fighting over how to gain power, well, he says, "we wish we could be having that kind of fight".

Andrew Marshall