Was the American Labor Party the most consequential third party in U.S. politics during the 1930s and '40s, or perhaps the entire 20th century?
Gerald Meyer, author of “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” took to the Mulberry Street Library podium May 9, and gave airing to these issues while mapping out the American Labor Party's (ALP) history and trajectory.
Meyer said that without the American Labor Party, New York City would have been denied the unique social-democratic configuration it acquired under La Guardia, and the left, a true national spokesperson during the 1930s and 1940s in Marcantonio.
With La Guardia and Marcantonio both having run on the Republican ticket, their leftward lurch in the late 1930s meant they needed a place to hang their ideological hats, The ALP provided the rack.
In 1937, La Guardia had to run for a second term. “And this becomes critical,” noted Meyer, “because there had been reform mayors before in New York City, but they never would win the second time. They would become mayors and start to clean up New York City, the corruption and the cheating at the ballot, and forget to take care of the poor.
“In the next election... back would come Tammany Hall, over and over again.”
In his first winning campaign for mayor, La Guardia ran as a Republican, but did so with the backing of the Fusion Party, which between 1933 and 1937 had been hollowed out.
“So how is he going to win an election running as a Republican in 1937 in New York City? Well, it's the American Labor Party,” said Meyer.
La Guardia prevailed. The ALP's participation in the election, said Meyer, was “priceless,” representing 36 percent of The Major's total vote haul. When he ran for a third term as mayor in1941, the Little Flower got exactly the same percentage of votes from the American Labor Party as four years earlier.
A Key to Electoral Success
Meyer asserted that the votes enabling La Guardia to win handily came from the ALP.
“Here we are talking about something big,” Meyer stated. “This is a big deal. What you have now is the mayor of New York City – keeping in mind the importance of New York – creating a social-democratic metropolis. That's what occurred in New York. A city orchestra. Who ever heard of such a thing? I mean who needs socialism when you have La Guardia?
“Everything was happening. All kinds of housing projects, wonderfully designed, with a thoughtfulness about how they would be situated to maximize the amount of light coming in. La Guardia said, 'I want to make people happy.' A lot of us didn't even have parents that wanted to make us happy.”
|Gerald Meyer at Mulberry Street Library|
The American Labor Party's triumph with La Guardia in '37 meant Marcantonio no longer had to campaign as a Republican, or just as a Republican. He ran on the ALP line and garnered a resounding return to Congress in 1939.
To the mass organizations of the left, Marcantonio became a hero who spoke at their conventions and gave voice to their concerns in the House of Representatives.
“And they would become enrolled members in the American Labor Party,” said Meyer. “What a good beginning.”
The ALP arose, in 1936, around a very specific goal: the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Meyer suggested that, upon his ascendance to the presidency, it was not suspected that FDR would enact such a radical, leftist program.
Roosevelt, Meyer said, knew he needed New York to be reelected and, consequently, showered the Depression-era city with federal largesse, making it the 49th entity for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in addition to those established for each of the 48 states.
New York City, said Meyer, received something like one-fourth of all WPA monies allocated nationwide.
“Hundreds of playgrounds were built, all the swimming pools still being used, the public libraries, public schools, Brooklyn College campus, Queens College campus, the Triboro Bridge, the IND (Independent Subway System) subway, the list is just endless,” said Meyer.
“By 1936, progressives of all sorts really understood that the need for reelecting Roosevelt was overwhelming. New York was critical, because at the time, it had 47 electoral votes (today it has 26).”
Standing in Roosevelt's way was the socialist vote in New York City. Meyer said there was a large base of Jewish working class people for whom socialism was a kind of secular religion that had replaced the old one they left behind in Eastern Europe.
In New York, the Socialist Party had achieved vote tallies as high as 300,000 and this had the Roosevelt coalition worried.
“So the ALP, in a very specific way, was intended to win over this voting block for Roosevelt. It was just that specific,” Meyer emphasized. “But as soon as the ALP began, as soon as a word was spoken, there was an absolute flood of interest.”
Professor Meyer suggested the party's name had something to do with its early success.
“Names are very important,” he said. “American Labor Party. To have the word “Labor,” in the name and to suggest there is a party that is now going to exist, explicitly representing the working class, is a tremendous phenomenon.”
The ALP had the support of a union movement in ascendance, access to a constituency and the means of activating them, means to educate them through union newspapers, and the resources to provide staff and money in a consistent way, not just for three months, but for 20 years, said Meyer.
“So the party was really based on top of this tremendous infrastructure of union and labor organizations,” he observed
The American Labor Party was able to provide the organization and ideological outlook, with a connection to unions, which ensured the Roosevelt would win the nomination and the election.
It's About New York
The key to the ALP's political power was its base in New York, said Meyer. “This is not happenstance really, the tremendous number of electoral votes, New York being the media capital, the intellectual center of the U.S., the response to the ALP was just enormous.”
The American Labor Party mobilized all its resources to reelect its congressman from New York, Marcantonio. It was the top priority and established the East Harlemite as a national spokesperson for the American left through the 1930s and 1940s.
Said Meyer: “Marcantonio, in seven terms as congressman between 1934 and 1950, in no uncertain terms, gave us what we never had again, a national spokesperson. He articulated brilliantly, eloquently and consistently over the entire spectrum of issues... agricultural policy; there are no farms in East Harlem, none.
“I don't know that if he had come from Minneapolis it would have occurred and this makes the ALP incredibly important,” said Meyer.
But the legal mechanics of voting and sharp organizational skills both played significant roles in the American Labor Party's rise.
The ALP is a state party, he explained. The U.S. Constitution designates the organization of elections to the states, which means different laws in different states.
The oddity of “fusion,” or cross-endorsements of the same candidate by different parties, makes it easier to field third party candidates in New York State than it is elsewhere.
“This is what we have to think about with the ALP,” said the Hostos Community College Professor Emeritus. “It is allowed to appear in New York in ways that it would be very difficult to do anywhere else.”
The Democratic Party's declining status among certain groups voters helped, too. In New York, the reality was one of a political machine run by Irish-American politicians, much the same as the Catholic Church in the Empire State.
The Democratic Party was in favor of the New Deal social program, unions, social security and redistribution, but simultaneously, Meyer noted, it was extremely anti-communist, which very often turned into anti-antisemitism.
“This has repercussions,” Meyer said, “because the other groups that are left out become resentful.”
“And this meant the Democratic Party was not viable in relation to what was happening with the New Deal, because the program was moving further left and appeared to be, and I believe was, highly socialistic. And that was not convenient for anyone in the New Deal to say, nor anybody on the left to say.”
The ALP exploited this breach, and leveraged the power it drew from it “brilliantly,” according to Meyer. The party saw who the underrepresented groups were: African-Americans; Puerto Ricans, Italian Americans and then fielded candidates to meet those constituencies where they lived.
All of this was done through the new city charter, Meyer observed, a document crucial to the American Labor Party in the boroughs because of its proportional representation provisions in city council elections.
A Lesson from History
“Proportional representation in New York City is something you need to know about and study and see why we have to integrate electoral reform into our own political work. Without it we are not going to go very far,” said Meyer.
Winner-take-all-elections put the electorate in an impossible quandary, he asserted, because in voting for the candidate a person likes best, one often contributes to getting the candidate they like least.
“People will do it once, they might do it twice, but that's it,” said Meyer. “And so the two major parties have hegemony indefinitely.”
With proportional representation, the representation in an elected body is based on the proportion of votes for a party so that a vote for the party of your choice therefore doesn't contribute or detract from the part you like next best.
In the first city council election the American Labor Party contested, it received approximately seven seats. With 30 percent of vote in Bronx, it got 30 percent of the council seats from there.
In the city council elections of 1943, one-in-four voters in New York City went either for the ALP or Communist Party, he said.
“The reason we don't have a left is that we are strangled by a system that makes a left impossible,” said Meyer. “We go around doing pageantry, but can't have any consequence.”
It was just how consequential the ALP was that garners Meyer's enthusiasm: “Getting La Guardia elected, allowing Marcantonio to get reelected and then to six more terms. Without the ALP it would not have been possible. We wouldn't have had a national spokesperson. We wouldn't have had a social-democratic metropolis.”
This kind of success within the context of a third party in American politics requires some seasoning, Meyer asserted.
“You don't roll out of bed and know this stuff. There has to be strategy and somebody with a wider view that coordinates matters, so things wind up. It's very hard to win anything, because the right controls the economy, and they control the media, and they're vicious on top of it.”
He recounted how Adam Clayton-Powell received the ALP's designation for a city council seat from Harlem. “This meant either the Democrats gave him the endorsement or there would have been an American Labor Party city councilperson,” Meyer noted.
The same thing happened when Clayton-Powell ran for Congress. “In both cases, the first African-American city councilperson in New York City and the first African-American congressman in New York State, are the doing of the ALP," said Meyer.
“The American Labor Party did that by knowing the system. It's one of the reasons Marcantonio was so effective. He knew parliamentary procedure,” he noted.
The American Labor Party was never repeated anywhere else, Meyer noted. Its history indicates that it is possible to resist the assault on all progressive gains that have been made.
“Based on what we know is actual reality we can create a vision where we can produce entities that would be repositories of power for the people,” Meyer concluded, “and be able to move things forward so that we can start winning very big.”