Reds and Greens

The New York gubernatorial race has much to tell us about the future of working-class politics in the US.

Kurtz & Allison / Library of Congress

In the week leading up to the New York gubernatorial election, progressives opened their email inboxes every day to find messages from the Working Families Party (WFP) telling them to vote on their line, whether from the mouth of Whoopi Goldberg or Mike Boland, the campaign manager for primary candidate Zephyr Teachout.

But unlike most traditional political literature, these emails carefully avoided mentioning their gubernatorial candidate. The WFP knew that few of their voters could get excited about Andrew Cuomo, the anti-worker Democratic governor the party had endorsed.

At the same time, they didn’t want to give Green Party standard-bearer Howie Hawkins any additional attention or acknowledge the very real competitor for the progressive vote that he had become. Meanwhile, the Greens and their supporters circulated numerous articles attacking not just Cuomo, who appeared on various ballet lines, but the WFP itself.

The race became a sort of laboratory case for independent progressive politics in New York, with a number of the variables normally present controlled away.

There was no question of “spoilers,” because it was obvious to all that Cuomo wouldn’t lose to Republican Rob Astorino regardless of how progressives voted. No one could claim that Cuomo was or would be a progressive, as his first term and campaign clearly showed his conservatism. Finally, the Greens nominated a pair of charismatic socialist candidates who were dedicated and effective campaigners: Hawkins and professional teacher, actor, and International Socialist Organization (ISO) organizer Brian Jones.

With the dust now settled, socialists must ask ourselves this: considering the experience of the gubernatorial election, the history of the US left and electoral parties, and the emerging socialist electoral strategies in other parts of the country, what lessons can we draw as we work to build a revolutionary socialist and working-class electoral strategy for New York State and the rest of the country?

The WFP and the Labor Party Question

Leftists are justifiably divided on the WFP. The model of the WFP, formed in 1998, is that of a labor party, tailored to New York State’s unusual electoral system.

The party is a coalition of individual activists, trade unions, and progressive community organizations. They use “fusion” voting to endorse Democrats, but with the option to nominate their own candidate, together with an extensive apparatus for recruiting and training candidates and organizing and lobbying between elections around liberal, good-government and working-class, standard-of-living issues.

After the party’s moment of glory in 2013, when candidates who came up through its ranks swept all three of New York City’s top elected offices (Mayor Bill de Blasio, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Public Advocate Letitia James), journalist Ari Paul wrote in Jacobin about how the party’s hesitance to challenge the Democratic Party has helped undermine working-class fighters like Hawkins, who lost a Syracuse Common Council seat race by a hair to a WFP-backed candidate in 2011.

If the party stuck to their guns and fought instead of cutting deals with (and twice endorsing) the likes of Andrew Cuomo, they could be a real force for change.

In contrast, former WFP organizer Ted Fertik disputes Paul’s dismissal of the deal-cutting, arguing that the party’s 2010 endorsement of Cuomo was necessary for the WFP to stay alive. The party faced an existential threat to their finances from a federal criminal investigation (it eventually found no wrongdoing), so a fight with Cuomo would have been unsustainable at the time.

Fertik also suggests that the party could be a transformative working-class vehicle that fundamentally reshapes US politics. The party’s internal split, he explains, is between the organization’s two factions.

First are the progressive rank-and-file members, who want to be able to withhold endorsements from conservative Democrats like Cuomo in order to drive the Democrats and the state leftward. Often opposing them are the party’s union leaders, who subordinate transformative politics to developing and maintaining relationships with elected leaders — for favorable contracts, for project labor agreements, for gaining organizing rights.

This tension is the WFP’s central problem. As long as unions leaders tend towards a relatively conservative, amiable relationship with government officials for structural reasons — and those same union leaders control the vast majority of the funding for the party — the individual members and the transformative political vision that many of them share (perhaps even with some of the union leaders) will forever be hamstrung, making the party much less threatening to anti-union Democrats like Cuomo, and perhaps even worse, much less internally democratic than they seems on paper.

Socialist activist John Halle has argued that this need to court powerful elected officials is a fatal flaw, and interprets it much less charitably. He feels that these relationships result from corrupt, highly paid union bosses trying to bilk their members and get theirs, not structural elements that restrict their freedom of movement. According to Halle, the WFP’s attempts to remain on cordial terms with the governor and other elected officials make the WFP nothing more than a farce of independent left-wing politics.

Still, as Fertik points out, the WFP has won some important victories. And there is something viscerally exciting about the WFP on display, even at their May 2014 convention.

For working-class people, including many women and people of color, to come together in genuine political debate about how best to collectively solve their problems, and to have those deliberations taken seriously (at least to some degree) by the corporate media, by Andrew Cuomo, and by top political figures around the state, seems almost miraculous. Still, this says more about how long and how badly we’ve been losing than about the WFP’s virtues.

It is notable that no rank-and-file members of the party spoke on behalf of Cuomo at the entire convention, and yet the WFP backed him. This pattern is reminiscent of many of the “progressive” labor organizations that dominate the WFP: they are made up of a racially and ethnically diverse body of working-class women and men, they are politically powerful, and they can genuinely improve the lives of the people within their ranks. And yet, they are not internally democratic, and they fail to put real decision-making power into the hands of their membership.

The problem of intraparty democracy isn’t unique to New York, or to our present time. Halle cites Eric Chester’s True Mission: Socialists and the Labor Party Question in the US, which recounts the history of attempts from the nineteenth century until today to found an independent left party through trade union structures. Chester argues that at every turn, the structural conservatism of union bureaucracy (and leftists’ obsession with catering to them) have divided and undermined socialists and revolutionary politics.

Before World War I, the Socialist Party of America (SPA) was deeply and acrimoniously split over the question of whether to follow the model of the British Labour Party. British trade unions had just formed the Labour Party as a social-democratic party, and swiftly gained some parliamentary representation by working with the Liberal Party. The more conservative US socialists proposed to do the same thing, moderating their politics to make a coalition with the American Federation of Labor.

The left of the SPA, including the great majority of the rank-and-file members of the party, put forward a different vision: the SPA should continue to espouse a radical, pro-worker political vision, and actively recruit and organize workers around that vision. The left of the SPA believed that any labor party in the United States would reflect the conservative politics of trade-union bureaucrats. Their goal instead was to create a party of workers, not a party of workers’ organizations.

What would that vision look like today? Many workers of color in the US are not able to vote, either because they are undocumented or permanent residents or because they’ve been disenfranchised by the legal system. Other working-class voters — disproportionately those of color, but many whites as well — are increasingly prevented from voting by stringent voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, and other voter-suppression measures. And many working-class people simply don’t vote, often because the options are intolerably bad.

In New York, however, the Green Party’s gubernatorial campaign articulated a genuinely left-wing, working-class platform, a “Green New Deal”: jobs for all, single-payer healthcare, fully-funded public education and support for teachers, a ban on fracking, and a $15 minimum wage.

For his part, Chester considers the Green Party an even worse option for socialists than a labor party. If labor parties end up beholden to union bureaucrats, he says, Green Party campaigns end up beholden to the affluent liberals who fund them.

But this Green campaign was an exceptional one. New York Greens are more sympathetic to socialism than most in the party, partly because of the leadership of Hawkins, a working Teamster, a participant in the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and an unabashed socialist.

In this election, the Greens made an alliance with socialist organizations like the ISO, Socialist Alternative, and Solidarity, and cemented it with the nomination of the ISO’s Jones as their lieutenant-governor candidate. During the campaign, Hawkins talked about using the Green ballot line in the future as “a united front in the electoral arena for all the people on the left. … If you’re in Socialist Alternative or ISO, you can run with us. I want us to show how to do real united front, real coalitions.”

Hawkins won two hundred thousand votes in this year’s elections, so the New York Green Party has a strong ballot line. They are now on Row D, meaning that their nominee will appear on the fourth line for the next four years in every race, from village trustee up to president of the United States. They also want to work with socialists at the city and state level, an undoubtedly exciting development.

Still, there are other contemporary models worth examining.

A New Socialist Politics

Ater two runs for state legislative seats in Seattle and three city council campaigns in various cities, Socialist Alternative (SA) is developing a strong model for socialist campaigns. Their Seattle city council candidate, Kshama Sawant, was the first socialist to win municipal office in the US in decades, garnering tens of thousands of votes.

In most of these races, the candidates have been rank-and-file union activists themselves (like Hawkins and Jones in New York), and the campaigns have centered on locally specific working-class struggles, like the $15 minimum wage, hospital staffing ratios, and foreclosures. Inspired by SA’s victorious campaign in Seattle and near-win in Minneapolis, socialists in Chicago are also trying to elect radicals to Chicago’s notoriously corrupt city council.

The Chicago Socialist Campaign (CSC), unlike the SA campaigns, is not run by a single group or tendency. It includes socialists from various organizations, including the ISO, Solidarity, SA, and Socialist Party USA, as well as unaffiliated socialists. The group originated in a series of public meetings in late autumn and winter of 2013 4, forming committees to research local elections, figure out the best ward contest to enter, and recruit a candidate to run in the 2015 city election.

In May, they announced they had found a candidate: Jorge Mújica, a labor organizer in the neighborhood who was active in communist and socialist politics before moving to Chicago in the 1980s. His ward includes both gentrifying neighborhoods and working-class Chinese and Mexican communities.

Mújica is campaigning on turning the area into a wage-theft free zone, a place in which no resident, whether employed in the ward or not, will have their pay stolen. If this sounds moderate, on some level it is: it simply means enforcing existing laws. But actually achieving that goal would bring Mújica, his working-class constituents, and the CSC into very public and direct confrontation with large and small employers all over the city.

While Mújica’s central plank would deliver immediate gains, improving the lives of many workers, it would also build power for future demands. It can thus be seen as a non-reformist reform, the linchpin of any viable socialist politics.

Early on, the CSC decided they would have a direct membership structure. Rather than having a council of representatives from the various socialist organizations, as had been proposed initially, every person involved is part of the CSC. This way, the voices of those who are not members of an existing tendency (who form the majority) don’t get drowned out.

Direct membership is a critical part of the CSC model: its structure makes it easier to talk to working-class Chicagoans about socialism and get the organizing and propaganda boost that having a socialist alderman can give them, but it has the side effect of combating sectarianism by bringing a diverse group of socialists together to do real organizing work.

It seems possible to incorporate such an element into the development of socialist campaigns on the Green ballot line in New York. Indeed, not to do so would be a real missed opportunity because like Chicago, New York has many socialist groups that don’t talk to one another enough.

The CSC is beginning its campaign by attempting to elect one alderman in one ward, but the long-term aim is to organize working-class and immigrant residents by focusing, uniting, and amplifying Chicago’s interrelated social movements.

This is an old idea for socialists. In the brief period between the 1905 and 1917 revolutions in Russia, the Tsarist state set up a parliament called the Duma. The Bolsheviks had members stand for election, and then, once in office, use their positions to legitimize, publicize, and connect different worker struggles to build a more coherent working-class force. When the Russian state faced a crisis, that electoral work helped equip the Bolsheviks to take state power.

Although Chicago is not on the edge of an October Revolution, this traditional revolutionary socialist thinking underlies the current strategy of the CSC. Whether the CSC wins or loses in February, it will organize more and run additional candidates in new wards.

The CSC offers a focused answer to the problem of how to build a mass party without compromising revolutionary socialist politics, which is the central issue in the labor party versus socialist party debate.

They reject attempting to build socialism by connecting with already-existing mass organizations like trade unions, which may require watering down radical politics (at least initially) or, alternatively, recruiting and training small numbers of people around a very specific political line, as most socialist cadre organizations do.

Instead, the CSC proposes focusing the energy of a whole city’s socialists, across neighborhoods and tendencies, on organizing one ward. This way, radicals can effectively use electoral politics to talk to people about socialism and what it could mean in Chicago today. In the next few months, we will begin to get a picture of how successfully they can do that.

Another group that has built a strong working-class politics is the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP). As labor journalist Steve Early wrote in this summer’s Social Policy, the VPP has become one of the most successful third parties in the United States by engaging workers at the level of shop-floor struggles. They represent another model of how an independent party can build a working-class base unmediated by the trade union leadership.

The VPP has brought workers and organizers together to facilitate labor movement unity. They work between elections to keep picket lines active, strikers fed, and organizing drives successful. They help rank-and-file activists and union staff organizers run for and win elected office. They have led the struggle for single-payer health care in Vermont and helped elect Bernie Sanders to the US Senate.

Neither the CSC nor the VPP come out of a vacuum. Both are possible because militant labor struggles in the past few years have created large groups of young labor activists in those places and a spirit of militancy and confrontation within the working class.

In Chicago, the collective experience of the 2012 teachers strike runs through every part of the CSC, although the campaign is not directly tied to or endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union. In Vermont, it is not one struggle, but many that have occurred in various workplaces over the past few years, especially among teachers and homecare workers.

It is necessary to build the militancy and activist base that this kind of politics requires through movement struggles (especially large workplace fights) everywhere. This is the only way socialists can create space to bring workers into radical politics.

In New York, the fight for public education offers some picture of what that could look like. By nominating Jones, a leader in the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a dissident caucus in New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, and by actively campaigning for the endorsement of local teachers unions, the Green Party placed themselves in the center of these struggles.

Many teachers union locals debated endorsing Hawkins and Jones, helping to catalyze larger tensions over Common Core, the expansion of charter schools, and union democracy. Six locals and several other teacher caucuses eventually endorsed the pair.

Lessons for New York Leftists

We can draw three lessons from the historical attempts of working-class people to build radical political parties and the more recent experiences of the WFP and the Green Party in New York, SA’s local campaigns in Seattle and Minneapolis, the CSC, and the VPP.

First and most important, these efforts must be based in the ongoing struggles of working-class people — especially in the workplace, but also against racist policing, exploitative banks and landlords, and for public education — and must meaningfully engage people from such struggles. These fights don’t just happen months before an election. They happen every day. So campaigns can’t be tied exclusively to the election cycle. This is the indispensable piece of the WFP model, and it shouldn’t be forgotten even as radicals seek alternatives.

Second, left parties should have clear politics. Candidates and volunteers knocking on doors should talk about class struggle, oppression, and socialism to provide a larger context for local fights and the campaign platform. In this way both successful and unsuccessful campaigns begin to build a mass working-class consciousness. These conversations can also sharpen the politics of the radicals working on the campaigns and bring down sectarian walls.

Third, it’s vital to find winnable elections that are ripe for base building. Hawkins was never going to be elected governor of New York, but by receiving almost two hundred thousand votes, he secured a strong ballot line and helped organize a statewide network. In the next four years, we need to use that infrastructure to win city council and state assembly races.

There is, however, a somewhat unresolved problem with this strategy: funding. The WFP’s central problem with democracy stems from its funding from unions, which are not accountable to the rank-and-file of the WFP (and perhaps not even their own members), but are somewhat accountable to current elected officials. An even more undemocratic alternative is to rely on a small number of large donors.

If money is a prerequisite for electoral politics, we need to find ways to raise reasonable amounts of cash from large numbers of small donations. We also must be prepared to win campaigns based on volunteers and tiny numbers of paid staffers, and by out-organizing even when dramatically outspent.

In this past election cycle, there was at least one amazing example of organized people defeating concentrated money: in Richmond, Calif., the oil giant Chevron spent three million dollars to defeat the left-wing Richmond Progressive Alliance — twenty times more than the RPA spent. The RPA won.

But we won’t always be outmatched here. Ty Moore’s campaign in Minneapolis actually raised more than his Democratic opponent, and radicals in places like New York City can benefit from new public-financing measures.

So where does that leave us? For all its virtues, the New York WFP — the modern version of a labor party — does not yet embody a radical working-class politics. It seems that it will take a transformation of its structure and its constituent unions for it to do so. In New York, at least, that leaves the Green Party. It doesn’t exemplify a working-class politics either. But if it builds a united front with socialists and organized working-class communities across the state, it can.