Working-Class Politics Without the Working Class

Born at the height of the Clinton era, the Working Families Party thought it had found a way to build a labor party in America. Today, it’s advancing progressive politics with a far narrower base than it expected.

Illustration by Daniel Haskett

The United States has never been a country friendly to third parties — especially progressive third parties. But the Working Families Party (WFP) has managed to escape the margins of American politics. The prominent left-wingers in Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, are closely aligned with the WFP and routinely promote the party’s work. In New York, where it was founded, the Working Families Party remains a force, with its organizers and independent expenditures prized by Democrats in contested primaries.

Yet over the years, the union-based electoral vehicle has evolved, becoming something of a paradox: it is both stronger and weaker than it once was. It is stronger because the party has become a genuine online fundraising juggernaut, with a brand now known to millions of voters. It is weaker because a large chunk of its organized labor base has left, and it cannot credibly lay claim to being a member-driven, working-class political party.

Free from the often-conservatizing influence of New York’s unions, the Working Families Party has taken more chances on progressive candidates and tied its future to the constellation of nonprofit and advocacy organizations that now reach into the upper echelons of Democratic Party politics, such as the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats.

These currents all have potent energy — but they provide constraints of their own. And what happens to the Working Families Party in the years to come might mirror the future of a Democratic Party in the middle of an identity crisis.

The Fusioneers

In 1998, left-leaning Democrats were at a nadir in New York and nationally. Bill Clinton was in the White House, repudiating the New Deal legacy and partnering with Republican speaker Newt Gingrich to weaken the social safety net. Rudy Giuliani was New York City mayor, and another Republican, George Pataki, governed in Albany. As they had for much of the twentieth century, Republicans controlled the New York State Senate.

Labor unions and progressive activists hoped to drag the Democrats leftward. The Working Families Party was key to that effort. The WFP was the brainchild of Dan Cantor, Joel Rogers, and several labor leaders, including the Communication Workers of America’s Bob Master. It had its origins in something called the New Party, a third party founded in the early 1990s to be a home for Democrats and unions frustrated with the Democratic Party’s rightward swerve.

“Labor didn’t really have as much clout in the Democratic Party at the time as it should have had,” said Sal Albanese, who was then a Democratic city councilman. “We put a ground operation together, urging people to vote on the WFP line.”

The New Party sought to bring fusion voting to every state in America, allowing left-leaning third parties to cross-endorse Democrats and, using the threat of a withheld endorsement, drive them left. Through legal challenges, the New Party hoped to eventually reach the US Supreme Court and have laws preventing fusion voting ruled unconstitutional. They did get their Supreme Court ruling, but the court ruled six to three in 1997 that states weren’t constitutionally required to permit candidates to appear on multiple ballot lines.

The next year, to gain party status in New York, the WFP needed to secure fifty thousand votes in a gubernatorial election. Their sole chance to do this was backing Peter Vallone Sr, the conservative Democratic city council speaker who often collaborated with Giuliani. It would be the first of several uncomfortable alliances WFP leaders would undertake to grow the party.

The gambit ultimately worked. Vallone lost the election to Pataki but garnered just over fifty thousand votes on the Working Families Party line. With New York’s fusion voting law — candidates can run on multiple party lines there, unlike most other states — this meant the WFP could cross-endorse Democrats, fund them, and hope they took up their progressive priorities.

In this vein, the WFP differed from other traditional third-party efforts. In New York, the Socialist and American Labor parties both had strength at various points in the twentieth century, fielding candidates on their own independent lines to compete with Democrats and Republicans. But the WFP thought these movements were mostly doomed because of the winner-take-all voting system, entrenched working-class partisanship, and hostility of Republican and Democratic party bosses, who were happy to put aside their differences to crush the Left. Popular Socialists like Meyer London, the Lower East Side congressman, met this fate, losing battles against powerful political machines on both sides of the aisle.

The WFP did not want to be another Green Party either, fielding long-shot candidates in races where, more often than not, they would pull votes from Democrats. The backlash against Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential bid taught the young WFP that the road ahead would be some blend of working with and against Democrats, while ensuring they never played the role of spoiler.

This strategy, pursued in tandem with certain labor unions, was successful. In 2001, the WFP helped elect a number of left-leaning Democrats to the city council, including a young political operative from Park Slope named Bill de Blasio. The WFP was able to organize multiple labor unions together around particular candidates and campaigns while incubating a new generation of political talent. Smart, young organizers cut their teeth with the WFP, and rising Democrats like De Blasio and Letitia James, the future state attorney general, became close to the party’s leadership.

Cantor and his allies brought the savvy, but it was labor that lent the cash and get-out-the-vote muscle. A WFP endorsement, for much of the 2000s, meant that several large labor unions would support your campaign. Not all unions were aligned with the Working Families Party, and some, like the massive 1199 SEIU, continued to back Republicans in power when it made sense for their own membership. But the labor connection was crucial for the WFP, because it kept the party tied to a working-class base. Unlike the American Labor Party or even the old Democratic machines, the WFP did not maintain extensive local political clubs and a large roster of volunteers independent of the unions.

Soon, though, the labor-WFP alliance would be shattered.

The Cuomo Wars

Elected in 2010, New York governor Andrew Cuomo wasn’t shy about his corporate Democrat background. A protégé of Bill Clinton, he was socially liberal but hostile to many labor unions and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In his first term, Cuomo sought to undercut public sector labor unions while drawing closer to certain private sector unions, like the building trades, in an effort to divide and conquer the broader labor movement. Cuomo cut Medicaid spending, strongly resisted raising taxes on the wealthy, and helped Republicans keep control of the State Senate. For anyone on the Left in New York, the Working Families Party leadership included, Cuomo was a clear villain.

However, in 2014, as Cuomo sought his second term, WFP leadership was in a bind. They needed fifty thousand votes to survive another four years as an official political party, and they were afraid they couldn’t do it without Cuomo on their ballot line. Many unions were especially keen to avoid a clash with a powerful governor. Some felt alienated by the increasingly liberal politics of the third party.

“I don’t want to run your party, but for you to think we shouldn’t be an important voice on the day-to-day events inside the party is crazy,” said one prominent labor leader.

Progressive activists were coalescing around a young law professor named Zephyr Teachout, hoping the long-shot campaign could punish Cuomo. Teachout was, in every way, a genuine left-wing candidate, criticizing Cuomo’s alliances with real estate and Wall Street and decrying his unwillingness to ban hydrofracking in New York.

In the end, in return for certain conditions, like support for a Democratic Senate, the WFP decided to endorse Cuomo. Activists were outraged. Many helped Teachout anyway, who ran an underfunded campaign but garnered more than 30 percent of the vote against Cuomo. Cuomo was enraged by the whole affair — no one should have to waffle on supporting the governor-king — and sought proper revenge. The biggest labor unions in the WFP, like the United Federation of Teachers and 32BJ SEIU, were given a clear ultimatum: choose the governor or the party. Knowing where their bread was ultimately buttered, the unions chose Cuomo.

Some unions remained with the WFP, but the labor exodus was a crisis for the party. Each union that left took its cash and membership with it. The only upside of the new reality was that the WFP would be freer to support progressive candidates, including Bernie Sanders, who the party enthusiastically backed in 2016.

With the large labor unions gone, the Working Families Party pivoted aggressively to fundraising elsewhere, following the Sanders approach to small online donations. By the mid-2010s, the WFP had become more of a national party anyway, supporting candidates in states like Wisconsin and Connecticut. Like other political nonprofits, the party took on the language of the young left, rebranding for a socially conscious future. The old white leadership, including Cantor and the sharp-elbowed New York state director Bill Lipton, faded from view. There were hiccups, like the WFP’s endorsement of Joe Crowley over an unknown Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, but those were easily overcome. Upon her election, AOC happily became a WFP Democrat.

Then 2020 happened.

The Missing Working Class

One reason the Working Families Party has sought so zealously, in New York at least, to maintain its status as a political party is that such a designation comes with certain privileges. Political parties in New York can spend virtually unlimited amounts of money in coordination with their endorsed candidates. A super PAC can’t talk strategy or plot a TV airwaves war with the candidate it supports, but parties can.

The new WFP was on display in 2019 when the party went all-in on backing Tiffany Cabán for Queens district attorney against an establishment candidate, Melinda Katz. The Working Families Party helped raise money for Cabán and paid for much of her crucial staff. It funded campaign expenditures on her behalf. The volunteer army itself came largely from the local Democratic Socialists for America (DSA) chapter. The WFP did not even bother getting Cabán their ballot line for the general election. Its primary function was serving as a useful merger of political consultant and PAC, heading up a sophisticated campaign effort.

Yet the WFP-DSA synergy would crumble later that year when the party decided to support Elizabeth Warren for president over Sanders, who was making a second bid for president against a fractured Democratic establishment. The WFP endorsement was curious on several fronts — Sanders had the support of most of the Squad and most young progressives, as well as a growing Latino vote — and came about through an opaque process over the objection of most of the WFP membership. Rather, the party’s affiliate nonprofits and advocacy groups pushed for Warren over Sanders, making an argument for the preeminence of identity.

“It is not OK to separate class from race and gender,” said one WFP member who backed Warren.

Warren was, at first glance, an impressive candidate, but her coalition was much narrower than what Sanders brought to his secondcampaign. It was smaller, whiter, and largely college-educated, roping in the sort of people who now automatically vote Democrat and cannot meaningfully sway nationwide elections. The WFP’s presidential endorsement decision demonstrated what the party had become: an umbrella organization for progressive advocacy groups and activist leaders with notable, but not terribly large, constituencies.

For a less media-savvy entity, the Warren endorsement would have been an unmitigated disaster. Warren’s campaign divided the Left and weakened the Sanders bid while failing to win a single state. After Joe Biden crushed Sanders in South Carolina and the campaign turned to Super Tuesday — the last chance for Sanders, who had won New Hampshire and the Nevada caucuses, to compete with the former vice president — Warren refused to drop out, and no one in the WFP publicly urged her to do so. On Super Tuesday, in her home state of Massachusetts, Warren finished behind both Biden and Sanders.

The Warren flop showed, at the very minimum, that the Working Families Party could raise money for and promote a national campaign but lacked the power to make it formidable. Had the WFP still been a political party of labor unions, it’s unlikely Warren would have ever won the endorsement. Union leaders would have chosen Sanders for his politics, sided with Biden because he was the former vice president, or remained neutral until after the primary ended.

Other recent endorsement decisions have been controversial. In Pennsylvania, the WFP has decided to support Malcolm Kenyatta, a state representative, in the Democratic primary for Senate. Kenyatta was an aggressive critic of Sanders during both his presidential campaigns and has raised far less cash than another left-leaning candidate, lieutenant governor John Fetterman, who backed Sanders in 2016. Kenyatta, who is only thirty-one, has the support of the American Federation of Teachers, but is otherwise unlikely to prevail in a crowded Democratic primary.

“I wish Bernie understood systematic racism is just about not being able to catch a cab or that all black people don’t live in the ghetto,” Kenyatta tweeted in 2016.

A year later, Kenyatta remarked that “Bernie has gone out of his way to give the benefit of the doubt to Trump voters but regularly attacks Dems leaders who lead this party.”

Kenyatta, like Warren, has attacked Sanders on identity grounds and is the sort of candidate who is less interested in a class-based politics. He’s someone who the old labor-centric WFP would have probably spurned: a long shot devoid of a serious constituency who used to be a Hillary Clinton delegate and an employee of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

In the WFP’s ideal future, it would find a way to reconnect with its labor base and, just like the Democratic Party writ large, gain a stronger foothold with working-class voters. It would reckon with the fact that it has become a political party that favors candidates like Kenyatta, who lack a mass appeal but flatter the sensibilities of the college-educated activists and nonprofit leaders who are drawn to their style of politics.

As the Working Families Party aims to become a true national power, these issues will become even more pressing. There simply aren’t enough college graduates to be the backbone of any left-wing third party.