Which Working Families Party?

With next week’s gubernatorial endorsement, we may finally reach the limits of the Working Families Party’s “inside-outside” strategy.

(Kate Ann / Flickr)

Accounting for Bill de Blasio’s victory in last fall’s mayoral election, New York press paid homage to the Working Families Party — a small Brooklyn-based party with roots in community and labor organizing. For many on the Left, however, the WFP is fatally compromised by its strategy of nearly always endorsing Democrats, even when there are third-party alternatives.

Pragmatism trumps principle, and there can be no credibility without principle. This complaint is familiar, and threadbare. Present developments are demonstrating its inadequacy.

New York’s austerian Governor Andrew Cuomo is scrambling right now to come up with a bill to establish a comprehensive system of public funding for all New York elections, which would make New York only the fourth state to do so. The proposed system is modeled on New York City’s outstanding program, which has led to the takeover of the City Council by the labor-left. (Mandatory paid sick days for one million workers and laws curbing stop-and-frisk are fruits of clean elections.) The only state to pass such a system through its legislature was Connecticut, the year after its erstwhile governor was sentenced to prison on bribery charges.

Given the absence of meaningful support from any power center of the New York State Legislature, that such a bill is even being considered is remarkable. That it may pass is a direct result of the power and credibility that the Working Families Party has built over the last sixteen years.

Polls now show an unnamed WFP candidate snatching a stunning 24% of the general election vote from Cuomo. If Cuomo cannot deliver a bill that meets with election reform advocates’ approval, he will almost certainly face a WFP challenger running to his left. This is the most political power that any organized force on the Left has wielded in American politics in generations. It merits a more sustained analysis.

Running an independent candidate for governor, however, is not a straightforward proposition for the WFP. The decision to take a deal on campaign finance and endorse Cuomo, or run independent, is the most severe test to the WFP’s inside-outside strategy, and the fragile equilibrium of the Left and organized labor that it expresses, in the party’s history. It is a struggle within the WFP itself as much as it is between the WFP and the Democratic Party.

The WFP State Committee’s vote on May 31 may well determine whether the party represents a genuine challenge to the Democratic Party’s centuries-old ability to neutralize left alternatives to its hegemony, or whether it is one more expression of that maddening historical impasse.

Before there was the Working Families Party, there was the New Party. Founded in 1990, NP was to be a left political party that would exist “both ‘inside’and ‘outside’ the Democratic Party,” in the words of an early strategy memo. The memo’s authors were Dan Cantor, who ran the New Party until it folded and has run the WFP ever since, and Joel Rogers, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).

Cantor is an organizer who cut his teeth in early 1980s Detroit attempting to get McDonalds workers to join unions, and won his credibility working as an organizer and then the coordinator of the national “labor desk” on Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns. Rogers is a social scientist, political theorist, and policy guru. Together they articulated a program for a political party to reverse the Left’s flagging fortunes.

Rogers and Cantor thought that the Keynesianism of the postwar period was a successful project of the political left whose power came from the industrial labor movement. It was a form of economic governance that “solved a problem for capitalists that capitalists could not solve themselves,” while also producing shared prosperity and meaningful shop floor and political representation for working-class Americans.

The breakdown of the mass production economy meant the disappearance of the economic basis for this entire order. Working people were the obvious losers, and the Left lost its base.

Any hope for a resurgent left would require building a new base, but the “organic” solidarities and working-class identity that had fueled and sustained the industrial labor movement had not survived cultural shifts since the 1960s. That base would therefore have to be constructed “discursively”.

Rogers, in particular, believed that the only viable path to a high-wage economy was through associations of working people with the capacity to play a role in the management of production — worker control as economic necessity, not simply desire.

He argued that this could only take place through a “deliberate politics of association” — the purposeful use of public power to build up the capacities of working people and their associations. The New Party was supposed to build a base for such a “programmatic mass politics” by articulating the ways that a more just economy would also be a more prosperous one, and, through its practice, by building democratic political organizations that would fight to enact such a program. He identified all of the “people at risk, under modern capitalism, of finding their lives and their social relations disrupted by ‘market forces’” as NP’s natural constituency.

Why try to build a new political party, rather than attempt a takeover of the Democratic Party — especially given the enormous obstacles that the American political system poses for independent politics? Rogers defended the need for an independent, progressive third party using fusion as an electoral strategy on two grounds: influence within the party, and power to restructure the American economy. Observing that the relationship between the Left and a corporate Democratic Party had “become an abusive” one, he argued that “the Left needs a credible threat of exit from that party” in order to be heard inside it.

But even if an outside threat helped the Left win influence within the Democratic Party, he did not believe it could be the vehicle for a genuine left program. It simply lacked the organizational cohesion and structural ties to the working-class to accomplish that mission.

The goal of the New Party was therefore not simply to move the Democrats leftward, though that was part of it. The goal for the party was also anchored in a vision of profound social transformation and a plan for bringing such transformation about. An independent political party was an integral piece of the puzzle.

The decision not to fully break with the Democratic Party was not simply a failure of ideological nerve, or a capitulation to some ill-defined “pragmatism.” Instead, the New Party wanted to be a fusion party because it wanted to take political power and use it for particular ends, one of which was to create the institutional conditions for the Left to build more power over time.

The New Party did not survive a 1997 Supreme Court decision that granted to the state of Minnesota an interest in preserving the two-party system of government.  But the following year, some of its veterans, along with leaders of New York Citizen Action, ACORN, the United Auto Workers, and the Communication Workers, regrouped in fusion-friendly and union-dense New York to form the Working Families Party.

How did this band of community organizers, “good government” advocates, and progressive unions gain the power to temper the most powerful politicians in New York State? In short: shrewd choice of electoral and legislative targets, a knack for getting the press to tell their version of the story, year-round voter contact, and the patient building of a coalition that hangs together even when its members disagree.

Before delving more deeply into the WFP’s success and failures, I want to pose a more general question: Why does the Left engage in electoral politics at all, and why do unions?

For the Left, there are three plausible answers. First, various forms of public power are instrumental to achieving reforms, and control of public power is won through elections. Second, we’d prefer elected officials to have political beliefs and values closer to ours. Third, election campaigns can be propagandistic platforms, dramatizing problems in ways that other forms of political action can’t, and potentially moving issues into public debate, even in the absence of victory at the polls.

If we are motivated by the first two reasons, we should put a high priority on winning elections. If we are motivated by the third, we may value winning less.

For unions, the rationale is different. In the case of public sector unions, or unions whose members work for private employers whose revenue come heavily from public sources, contracts are the principal motivation for electoral mobilization. Unions also engage in politics — with members’ dues as well as their votes — in order to ensure access to elected officials who make decisions that affect their members. And yes, they sometimes act in their enlightened self-interest by joining coalitions that advocate for policies that improve the lives of working people.

For labor unions, then, the reason for engaging in elections is nearly always to win them. For the Left, this is not necessarily the case. Both constituencies exist within the Working Families Party.

Most people on the Left support the idea of an inside-outside strategy like the WFP’s — they’re just not persuaded that the outside option is real. Most people in positions of leadership in the labor movement are structurally bound to an inside strategy, and see the WFP as a way to strengthen their hand within the Democratic Party.

The struggle within the party over whether to endorse Andrew Cuomo or run an independent candidate for governor is therefore both about whether the party should be “inside, outside, or somewhere in-between” the Democratic Party, as Cantor once put it, and whether to be inside, outside, or on some other side of the labor movement.

The WFP and New York’s unions have both benefited from their close relationship. But only a handful of the unions affiliated with the WFP have ever countenanced jeopardizing their relationships with powerful Democratic politicians. The deeply felt and entirely justified belief on the Left that Andrew Cuomo is precisely the sort of Democrat that the WFP was created to destroy, along with the near-impossibility of actually spoiling the race, has convinced activists and leaders within the party that now is precisely the time to break with habit and run a campaign that the party has no intention of winning.

Union leaders considering the near-certainty of Cuomo’s re-election, his famous vindictiveness, and his powerful influence over many of their members’ contracts, are convinced that there was never a worse time to deploy the “outside” weapon of the inside-outside strategy.

The party’s future may well hang in the balance.

Thanks to the turnout efforts of its founding organizations, and a clutch editorial from the Nation, in 1998 the WFP surpassed 50,000 votes for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Vallone, enough to win access to the ballot for the next four years. More media-conscious than the New Party, and perhaps more politically sophisticated (the choice of “Working Families” came from polls and focus groups), the WFP focused on “bread and butter issues” (living wages, affordable housing), ostensibly to the exclusion of “cultural” issues (gun control, reproductive rights).

The WFP’s wager was that large majorities were more progressive than both parties on economic justice issues, but party alignment on other issues was preventing those majorities from coalescing. By highlighting economic justice, the WFP could make itself the “margin of victory”for its chosen candidates, and gain leverage with that margin.

Their strategy combined three elements. First, the WFP aggressively sought to get candidates to accept its nomination as a way to familiarize voters with the party, and, by getting votes on its ballot line, to demonstrate to candidates that its endorsement had real value. Second, the party used its resources to actively engage in targeted electoral races, including very small local ones. Third, the WFP built a year-round canvass organization, which spent most evenings talking to voters about issues like clean elections and raising the minimum wage.

As time went on and the party racked up electoral and legislative successes, it also managed to convince New York’s large unions to invest significant funds in building up its organizational capacity. In turn, the WFP gradually became something like the political arm of the progressive wing of the state’s labor movement.

This development had real advantages. Not only did it allow the party to hire staff who could focus on electoral strategy year round, but it also meant that the party’s leadership was accountable to hundreds of thousands of working-class New Yorkers through their unions.

The downside was that the growing influence of large unions crowded out individuals who were not labor or community leaders from having a meaningful influence on party strategy. From 2006, the WFP increasingly moved into an alliance with the Democratic caucus of the New York State Senate to try to unseat the long-standing Republican majority. The result was to at once make the WFP feel more like a party of the state’s big unions than the coalition of activists envisaged in the original New Party conception and to make it feel more like the progressive wing of the Democratic Party than an independent political party committed to challenging a dysfunctional two party system.

In the eyes of Working Families Party leaders, whatever the tradeoffs of a closer alliance with the Democrats and greater dependence on rich unions may have been, they were worth it. The WFP had achieved legitimacy and a measure of stability, and major policy gains could be won by playing the role of coalition partner.

Success bred boldness. In 2009, the party, along with several of its affiliates, delivered a major shock to New York City politics by ejecting four city council incumbents who had supported Bloomberg’s term limits coup, and propelling Bill de Blasio to first place in the contested Public Advocate race. Said the New York Times, “The Working Families Party, once derided as a ragtag collection of Brooklyn progressives, is now the preeminent political force in New York City politics, replacing a forlorn, disorganized Democratic Party.”

The new council members joined up with grassroots progressives already there to form the Progressive Caucus, which has since led the successful fights for guaranteed paid sick days and against stop-and-frisk. In 2010 the WFP passed landmark statewide green jobs legislation, and in Connecticut it won passage of a sweeping paid sick days law.

After the 2013 elections the Progressive Caucus counted twenty-seven members. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the speaker of the City Council was chosen not by the disreputable bosses of the county Democratic machines, but by an independent caucus of legislators determined to push a progressive agenda.

The victories of the last four years, meanwhile, took place in a context of unrelenting right-wing attack. The New York Post has been an enemy since the party’s founding (“quasi-Marxist” and “parasite” are among the Murdoch organ’s most recent epithets). Since 2008, the real estate industry has poured money into fighting the WFP.

Encouraged by scurrilous journalism and a coordinated campaign against the party, in 2009 the US Attorney’s Office opened a criminal investigation into the WFP’s work on behalf of candidates it supported. Seizing the moment, lawyers connected to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, angry over the election of the first black person to office from Staten Island, brought suit against the party.

These attacks cost the WFP not one single vote. Nor have exhaustive audits of the party’s records turned up any evidence of wrongdoing. But the legal fees came within a hair of bankrupting the party. Many on the Left were disappointed when the WFP gave Andrew Cuomo its endorsement in 2010. Yet courting Cuomo’s hostility by running an independent candidate for governor at that moment of internal financial crisis could have led to the party’s extinction.

The WFP did not endorse Bill de Blasio in the Democratic primary last year — major affiliate unions were divided on the race. But this minor detail did not stop the New York press from crediting the WFP with de Blasio’s victory. The young Oregon Working Families Party this year passed a bill that has the potential to end student debt for students at Oregon public colleges. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, the party struck a blow against corporate education reform. And now the Party is aggressively campaigning for a New York City-style public financing bill at the state level that would pave the way for the same sort of targeted electoral work in legislative races that swung the city council leftward.

Each of these victories has boosted the party base of support and encouraged it to go bigger. Contrary to Ari Paul’s assertion in Jacobin that cutting a deal today never puts you in a position to stand on principle tomorrow, the WFP’s restraint has been essential to attracting large unions and their considerable financial and organizational resources.

These resources and the efforts that unions have made to encourage their members to vote on the Working Families ballot line have been the fuel that has fed the party’s growth as an electoral and legislative force.

With this power, the WFP has delivered real gains for working people and it has given the Left influence over political outcomes that it has not had in most of our lifetimes. That an unnamed Working Families candidate commanded 24% of the vote against Andrew Cuomo in a Siena Poll — making the party’s endorsement decision the most important question in New York politics right now — would not have happened but for the slow process of building organization and credibility, such that hundreds of thousands of New York voters now habitually vote on the WFP’s line and trust it to govern in their interests.

These are the party’s accomplishments. What of its failures?

Looking back at what the New Party hoped to accomplish, the first thing that stands out is just how little the party’s existence has weakened the two-party system of American politics. Generally people are not forced to choose between membership in the Democratic Party and in the WFP. As many of the party’s successes have come from running progressive candidates in Democratic primaries, the WFP increasingly talks about being a “party within a party.” In many ways, the WFP lives up to the New Party’s goal of being somewhere between inside and outside the Democratic Party; in other ways it demonstrates the limits of trying to have it both ways.

This is one of the sources of left frustration with the WFP: by appearing to be so cozy with Democrats, the party does not actually do the work of changing how voters think about the structure of the American political system or educate them on how to transform it; by not running its own candidates, it fails to build a real party identity that over time voters might embrace as their own.

This limited voter identification with the party is both cause and consequence of a much bigger problem: the party’s failure to build a real base. Having one would mean having thousands of people who self-identify as members of the party and a large number of activists committed to growing the party. It would mean talking to voters about the party as such, not just about key issues. It would mean, in other words, investing in organizing and party building.

The WFP has attempted this at times, but not consistently. By more often opting for the “inside” component of the inside-outside dyad, the WFP has passed up opportunities to attract those perennially alienated from two-party politics.

The other shortcoming is ideological. The thinking behind the New Party was grounded in an analysis of the consequences of the breakdown of the Keynesian order of the post-war period. In the US, the Democratic Party had been the vehicle that functionally integrated the working class into the political system; it thus played an important role in the overall reproduction of American capitalism.

With the material foundations having shifted so dramatically by the 1990s, it was necessary to create new political institutions that would enable democratic coalitions to engineer a new political economy of high wages and high standards, worker control over production itself, even significant changes in property rights — in other words, the kinds of changes that many socialists would support.

The trouble is, the party doesn’t talk to the public this way.

Why? Because it’s difficult, time-consuming, and because with no one else talking that way, most Americans are not remotely primed to hear it. Instead, the party talks in a language that people already understand: inequality and unfairness, the lack of public goods, unsustainable environmental practices, the absence of representation at work. It denounces the bankers and defends social security.

But it has not tried to give voters a new vocabulary for understanding the world. It has not gone beyond a populist appeal to the poor, working, and middle classes in defining its constituency.

It does not talk about building up the capacities of working class people to exercise some measure of democratic control over the economy, nor, with its almost exclusive focus on electoral politics and legislation, does it appear to consider establishing democratic control over the economy to be its responsibility.

Perhaps that was always too much to ask from a single organization. Nevertheless, Joel Rogers says explicitly that his is not a liberal conception of social, economic, and political order. There is therefore a small irony in the fact that the shorthand that voters, elected officials, and newspapers alike use to describe the WFP’s politics is “liberal.”

The WFP has not, in other words, developed a “programmatic mass politics” along the lines of Rogers’s and Cantor’s original vision for the New Party. Or, if it has, it has not yet found a way to talk about it that recognizably distinguishes it from the “warmed-over opinions from . . . the editorial board of the New York Times” — a lamentable condition on the Left that in 1995 Rogers hoped the New Party would begin to change.

With the pending gubernatorial endorsement, we may finally have reached the limits of the Working Families Party’s inside-outside strategy. Organized labor, from which the WFP has drawn so much of its strength, and to which it has given a mouthpiece that can articulate a general interest, may now be the biggest obstacle to the party’s growth as a force on the Left.

Leaders of the healthcare workers union SEIU 1199, one of the most powerful and historically progressive unions in New York, have been pleading the governor’s case from within. Some writers have suggested that the governor may pressure unions to leave the party — and take their resources with them — if the WFP’s State Committee is foolish enough to refuse Cuomo its ballot line and run an independent candidate instead.

Kevin Finnegan, 1199’s political director and for many years the WFP’s lawyer, summed up labor’s reasoning to the Times: “Our goal was to push Democrats to the left. I think we have been successful in that. The governor is going to win, and why not use this opportunity to develop a better relationship with him?”

The union has contracts with hospitals that serve large numbers of poor New Yorkers; its members’ wages are therefore paid in significant part by Medicaid dollars, allocation of which is controlled by New York State. The union’s leadership fears that Cuomo will use this channel to seek retribution if they chart their own course.

One might protest that Cuomo needs 1199 and its 230,000 members in New York State more than it needs him; that this is the union which in 2008 was able to get Cuomo — then New York’s attorney general — to arrest a nursing home CEO who was terrorizing striking union members; that its heavily Caribbean and female rank and file is among the most militant in the country. But this would be to miss the point. The union engages in politics to deliver for its members.

Andrew Cuomo has delivered for 1199, and he apparently wields a credible threat to deliver less if the union does not toe the line. Cuomo, meanwhile, apparently cares enough about the WFP’s decision that regardless of the fact that 1199 will endorse him, and that it will vote for his endorsement within the WFP, he may nevertheless hold the union responsible for failing to prevent the WFP from running against him.

Unexpectedly, New York State election law is responsible for the dynamics of the Cuomo endorsement. For most elections, the law allows minor parties to select their nominees however they choose. The WFP’s process gives unions a large say. But for the small number of statewide offices — attorney general, comptroller, governor — the law requires that nominations be voted on by party state committees, which in turn are by law made up of representatives from each assembly district.

The WFP’s State Committee draws more heavily from the activist wing rather than the union wing of the party. Cuomo has infuriated many of these activists over charter schools, his stalling tactics on campaign finance reform, and his austerity budgets. They ask, sensibly, what voters will really think the WFP stands for if it papers over these differences.

The WFP courts some significant risks if it goes its own way. The more that Cuomo appears to be negotiating in good faith over a public financing bill, the more that Democratic Party insiders will blame the party for unnecessarily opening up a rift, and the more pressure there will be on big unions to distance themselves. Loss of access to those members, and to the unions’ coffers, could weaken the party and lessen its organizational accountability to working class voters.

On the other hand, the party stands to gain a great deal if it can demonstrate to voters that it represents a real alternative to the major parties. A statewide campaign against a “one percent” governor could be galvanizing. But there is little point in doing so unless those on the Left who desire to put a thumb in the eye of the Democratic Party would respond to the gesture by stepping in to support the WFP with their bodies and their loose change, as well as their votes.

If the Left can fill the gap opened up by departing unions, it can help the WFP continue to increase its power. And if it can do that, the labor movement will perhaps recognize that it doesn’t have to choose between access and power. The WFP will have not only moved the Democratic Party to the left, but the labor movement, as well.