Does the Working Families Party Work? An Appraisal of 25 Years of Semi-Independent Politics

For a long time, labor and progressives have had essentially one electoral strategy: elect Democrats, and hope for the best. Every cycle, prominent progressives issue statements that somehow, this time, things will be different. Somehow, they never are. A prominent labor movement strategist recently put the matter bluntly:

“in election after election the labor movement and other progressives have been arguing that . . . the Democrats must run on an aggressive, populist, economic message. But the cross-pressures the party feels from its big moneyed corporate donors, over-caution, and too many campaign consultants using the same old play book . . . prevent it from happening.”

Meanwhile, not only do Democrats lose more often than they win, but even when they do win, they do not pursue policies in office that would, say, reverse the precipitous decline of union membership in America, for example. But the more that the Koch Brothers rally the Republican party to an all-out assault on what little remains of the New Deal Order, the more labor and progressives have no choice but to support Democrats. There is a class struggle in America, and for the better part of four decades, working people have been losing it. Any reversal of fortunes will require a political strategy built on a different relationship to the Democratic party than the one labor and progressive organizations have pursued up until now. The only serious question for the present is what that strategy should be.

The Working Families Party—established in New York in 1998, but originating with the New Party in 1990—is the most advanced political project on the American left whose purpose is to cut the Gordian knot of labor and progressives’ dependence on the Democratic party. Discussions of the WFP used to revolve around the merits and demerits of the arcane electoral mechanism known as “fusion.” But fusion was always a tactic, not a strategy. The strategy was bringing together the resources and membership bases of unions and community organizations that already engage in electoral work into a durable coalition that would specialize in electoral work, operate year-round, be visible, take on and win issue fights at the municipal and state levels, and decide for itself when and how to engage in electoral contests—up to and including running independent candidates for office—always using elections to advance an issue agenda, rather than the career of any particular politician. WFP strategists and allies call this formula “independent political organization” (“IPO”).

The WFP’s accomplishments have been tallied many times. Probably no other progressive organization can post a comparable track record. But the velocity of the Tea Party’s rise and the scale of wreckage it has been able to induce, in a political context already dominated by right-wing narratives, put those victories in perspective: organized money’s Vulcan death grip on the American polity is tighter than ever before. Given this, there are two questions that need to be answered. First, would the WFP’s model materially change labor’s and progressives’ relationship to the Democratic party, if it were brought to scale? Second, would a change in that relationship amount to a challenge to the power of organized money in America? Mounting such a challenge is the fundamental task of the American left today. It must be at the center of every political analysis. Sixteen years of experience permit us to assess how well the WFP’s model of independent politics measures up to this historic responsibility.

Any aspiring independent political formation must attract resources, and generally, the threshold condition for resources is relevance. The WFP set out to convince institutional players that it was not completely quixotic by making targeted electoral interventions in service of legislation that would improve the lives of working people. From the start, it rejected the Green Party’s strategy of strictly running its own candidates for office, reasoning that no democratic political system on the planet is as intransigently duopolistic as the American. The WFP’s founders believed that, to be successful, the left needed to control strategic levers of public power to deliver real resources for its base and grow the base’s capacity to intervene in the economy. In other words, it needed to govern. The new party would pursue an “inside-outside” strategy—investing resources in candidates who had a shot at winning, and using the support it leant to winning candidates (be it votes on a ballot line or a field operation) as leverage for their support on issue priorities.

Every institutional player’s fear was that the WFP would be a “spoiler party.” In 1998, the WFP could only convince the Communications Workers, the Auto Workers, ACORN, Citizen Action, and, crucially, the Nation magazine, to encourage their members (and readers) to vote for Democrat Peter Vallone for New York Governor on the WFP ballot line, to reach the fifty thousand–vote threshold (roughly 1 percent) for permanent ballot access. The WFP squeaked by with fifty-two thousand. This result largely dispelled the spoiler fear. In 2003, the party seized the unusual opening created by the murder of a Brooklyn city councilman to elect attorney Letitia James (now the City’s public advocate) on the WFP line in an election without a primary. This demonstrated that the young party could win elections outright.

Between 1998 and 2004, the WFP focused most of its organizational energy on raising New York’s minimum wage. In 2004, the WFP endorsed an incumbent Republican in a Yonkers State Senate race on the basis of his commitment to vote for an increase. Nick Spano got fifteen hundred votes on the WFP line and won the race by eighteen. The wage hike passed a month later, over Pataki’s veto. That same year, the party stunned political observers by lifting unknown attorney David Soares to victory in a primary challenge to the incumbent Albany County District Attorney on a platform of reforming the state’s reactionary Rockefeller Drug Laws. The laws were significantly tempered in the subsequent legislative session.

Beginning in 2006, the WFP entered into a closer alliance with the Democratic caucus of the New York State Senate and essentially became the Democrats’ field operation as they worked to end fifty years of Republican control of the Senate. When the switch came in 2008, the WFP received much of the credit. By that point, the WFP had convinced many of the state’s most powerful unions to affiliate with the party and invest resources in it. The party had achieved relevance, a victory in its own right. Says Dan Cantor, the party’s chief since its founding,

We spent the first 25 years trying to prove that it is actually possible to create a party or party-like organization that works 12 months a year, and that is seen as relevant by affiliated organizations. People don’t see their time spent as a favor. They see it as essential to their own political practice at this point.

If an independent political organization can become essential to labor and progressive organizations’ political practice, can it also alter that practice? The answer depends in part on whether organizations want it to. Says Connecticut director Lindsay Farrell,

A lot of the people on the traditional left, who feel they have to play the game of Democratic politics because they are so much a part of that structure, see the WFP as a place where they can go beyond that.

Mounting primary challenges to corporate Democrats—a risky practice foreign to most unions and the AFL-CIO—has been an important tactic for the WFP, as in a recent Connecticut state senate race. Furthermore, the WFP’s experience has shown that an IPO can make a more profound change to labor and progressive organizations’ political practice by building up the capacity necessary to conceive and implement long-term plans for transforming legislative bodies.

Before Mike Bloomberg and the New York City Council conspired to give themselves a third term in 2008, the WFP and its affiliates had their sights trained on the Council, where two-thirds of the body’s fifty-one seats were slated to be open. Two years prior, the WFP and allies began to identify organizers and grassroots leaders to run in targeted districts. Even after the term limits coup, a number of candidates were promising and inspiring enough that the WFP and its affiliates decided to back their candidacies against incumbents. The result was a rout. WFP-backed challengers defeated incumbents in four out of the five races the Party had prioritized. Shortly after the November election, the new council members, joining a mixed group of WFP-endorsed incumbents, formed the Progressive Caucus. In 2010, the caucus was the driving force behind a bill for mandatory paid sick days and an end to “stop and frisk,” both of which eventually passed, despite Speaker Christine Quinn’s resistance and Bloomberg’s veto, in 2013. That fall, the WFP and its allies added several more council members to the Caucus, enough to take over the coveted council speakership, electing Manhattan councilwoman and former SEIU 1199 organizer Melissa Mark-Viverito to this enormously powerful post. Whereas it had taken four years to pass the first Paid Sick Days bill, it took a matter of weeks to pass the law’s extension.

It is difficult for any organization to hold elected officials accountable once they are in office. It is much better to elect people who are genuinely committed to progressive principles. But the better candidates are usually less rich and connected than the worse candidates, and this is often enough to keep them from ever running or to be dismissed as unviable when it comes time for labor and progressive organizations to make their endorsements. A year-round organization that can vet, recruit, and train candidates can alter the calculus.

The WFP’s successes are noteworthy, but how significant are they when set against the unmistakable rightward drift of American politics? Its victories have been at a local and state level, and all in heavily “blue” states. Like many on the left, WFP leaders thought that 2008 signaled a long-overdue shift in the national narrative in which calls for more egalitarianism and a necessary role for the state in providing public goods could carry the day. The Tea Party avalanche of 2010 put paid to the hopes of 2008, and drove home the fact that the Rise of the Right is by far the most important political reality in contemporary America. The WFP points to the subsequent victories of Dan Malloy in Connecticut and Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania as proof that the Working Families brand and organization adds value in contested races. National Democrats seem finally to be realizing that universal pro-worker policies like guaranteed paid sick leave—an issue the WFP has championed for years—are hugely popular. The WFP argues that its performance compares favorably to the hundreds of millions of dollars that wealthy progressives and unions turned over to consultants for TV ads, and it hopes this comparison will lead to resources for expansion to new states (it is currently active in nine) in the coming years. No one maintains, however, that even growth on this scale will result in a left-wing electoral surge to match the Tea Party.

Just as big a problem as the Tea Party is the rise of neoliberal ideology within the Democratic Party itself, perhaps nowhere more visible than in the full-on embrace of “school reform” by Democratic elites across the country. The WFP has been unequivocal in its opposition to this movement, and this opposition has created the possibility for polarizing Democratic voters on the issue. This was the case in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the WFP led a successful effort in alliance with local parents to take over the local school board to stymie the Democratic mayor’s neoliberal “reform” efforts. In a way, the Bridgeport fight is a microscopic instance of what is happening in southern Europe, where after many years of taking it quietly, new political parties are mobilizing the forces of “democracy” to fight back against “the totalitarianism of the market”—to use Pablo Iglesias’s brilliant formulation—and its abettors in the mainstream parties of right and left. It suggests there is room for the WFP to break more decisively with the Democrats on programmatic questions, something its leaders recognize, but have not yet done.

Indeed, one of the most persistent critiques of the WFP is that the price of relevance has been an unwillingness or inability to present voters with a genuine ideological and programmatic alternative—that it is independent in name only. This claim was undoubtedly bolstered by the party’s decision to endorse incumbent governor Andrew Cuomo over law professor and anti-corruption campaigner Zephyr Teachout. Cuomo had infuriated progressives and union leaders with austerity budgets and support for charter schools. He faced a weak Republican challenger and was all but guaranteed to win reelection. Polls in April showed that a WFP challenger could get 24 percent of the vote in a three-way race. The circumstances appeared ideal for the WFP to run its own candidate—something it had never done in a statewide contest. But at the eleventh hour, the WFP’s close ally Bill de Blasio brokered a deal between WFP leaders and Cuomo in which Cuomo promised to press for a litany of top WFP priorities, including a large minimum wage hike and public financing of elections and to support primary challenges against a group of Democrats in the State Senate whose decision to caucus with the Republicans was blocking passage of progressive legislation.

The deal, however, was an asymmetrical one: the WFP had to give over its endorsement (irrevocably) that day, while Cuomo’s commitments would only materialize in subsequent months. In other words, it was unenforceable. Having cleared the endorsement hurdle, Cuomo no longer feared going back on his commitments. Teachout captured 35 percent of the primary vote without WFP support. Cuomo, in all but open repudiation of his pledge, lent no visible support to the Democratic primary challenges, and none succeeded, leaving Republicans in control of the Senate.

The whole affair was a blow to the WFP’s prestige, but in the end the November returns were unremarkable. The WFP’s 120,446 votes for Cuomo (3.22 percent) were less than the 150,000 to 250,000 it has received in recent statewide contests, but not so little as to provoke a reckoning. The Green Party’s Howie Hawkins’ 176,000 votes (4.85 percent) dwarfed previous Green totals, but were hardly a groundswell and almost surely fewer than Teachout would have received had she appeared on the WFP line. The Cuomo endorsement was a missed opportunity, not the tolling of a death knell.

Many members of the WFP’s coalition, especially the leaders of large unions, fundamentally saw no value in challenging Andrew Cuomo. Even unions that had little to fear in the way of direct retaliation could not see the benefit to alienating such a powerful potential ally. Several threatened to quit the party, raising the stakes of the decision for the WFP’s state committee members and underscoring the precariousness of having the official labor movement as the cornerstone of an independent political formation.

The WFP was always likely to end up with Cuomo so long as most of the organizations that make up its coalition continue to downplay the need to wage an ideological as well as a tactical struggle against the Republican right and its neoliberal enablers in the Democratic Party. Cuomo was indeed going to win in November. The reason to take him on was not to beat him but to lay down an ideological marker, to give him and his ilk a scare, and to build grassroots momentum for a head-on challenge to his policies. Courting a fight with a Democrat as powerful as Andrew Cuomo is worlds apart from the traditional political practice of even progressive unions, and for good reasons. Most of the time, it is a fool’s errand; sometimes it is outright reckless. But the political dynamics in America will not shift without taking risks. By pursuing the strategy they have employed to date, the WFP and any IPO imitators it spawns will continue to create opportunities to alter the broken relationship between progressives and the Democratic Party. Their leaders will have to decide whether to take them.

If we accept that the American political system makes it exceedingly difficult for a political formation that wants to affect policy to mount a full-on assault on the political system itself—that there are trade-offs between relevance and offering voters a more radical alternative—we can nevertheless ask whether the equilibrium the WFP has staked out is the optimal one.

At one level, the WFP has something in common with Podemos and SYRIZA: all are products of the decline of both unions and social movements as political forces. The success of the two Mediterranean parties to date has been due in part to their openness to social mobilizations that emerged from outside of traditional parties, unions, and movements, enabling them to become an authentic political expression of the spirit of those mobilizations. The WFP initially conceived its constituency as individual activists and progressive institutions, but both for reasons of resources and for reasons of political heft, the WFP has always leaned more toward the institutions, especially unions. This preference for institutions has meant that the WFP did not become the political expression of the Occupy movement, and to date has not become the political expression of the movement for immigrant rights or #Black LivesMatter, even as the WFP has been an ally of all of them. It does not occur to most activists and militants to join and participate in the WFP, even as they agree with much of what it does. Organizing strategist Deepak Bhargava believes “there are two challenges that the left has to solve if it is going to change the political dynamics in this country. The first is social movement construction. The second is building an independent political formation.” The two will need to be linked. Separately, neither is enough to pose a threat to the ruling order.

Could the WFP, or independent political organizations modeled on it, become that authentic political expression?

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) was home to the most important rank-and-file insurgency in recent memory, as a slate backed by the union’s Caucus of Rank and File Educators took over the union leadership in 2010, committing to fight school privatization and concessionary contracts. The new leadership had long been dissatisfied with the union’s traditional “pay to play” political practice. As CTU strategist Jackson Potter put it, “People who were claiming to be champions of our interests were promoting the very policies that represent the greatest threat to our continued existence.” The new CTU hoped that taking a more openly confrontational political line would bring Democrats to heel. Instead they faced an almost immediate attack as the billionaire-funded “Stand for Children” backed Democratic state legislators’ 2010 campaigns to the tune of hundreds of thousands in the hope of passing union-busting legislation. CTU leaders realized they were going to need a more robust political operation. They began looking at existing efforts in different parts of the country.

How do we create a hybrid model that allows us not to succumb to the traditional methods of buying favor and having very little to show for it, and how do we prevent ourselves from making the opposite mistake of completely ignoring reality?

The WFP’s successful crusade against Bridgeport schools superintendent Paul Vallas— a Chicago native and CTU scourge—impressed the Chicago teachers.

Last year, the CTU, a huge SEIU home care local, and two prominent community organizations formed “United Working Families,” which has a close relationship with the WFP. UWF was a major force behind Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s stunning challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It ran a slate of aldermanic challengers, with impressive results. Most unions backed Emanuel. But parents and teachers from communities of color are behind the insurgents. On the same night, back in Bridgeport, Ed Gomes became the first-ever U.S. state legislator elected solely on the WFP ticket. The more IPOs can polarize politics around the issues that divide corporate Democrats from the 99 percent, the more galvanizing their efforts will be.

What does it take to achieve relevance? Can independent political organizations alter the discredited political practice of progressive organizations and unions? Can they combat the rise of neoliberalism within the Democratic Party or counter the American right’s ascendancy? Do they present voters with a genuine alternative—and if they do not now, could they? If they did, would it represent a credible threat to the ruling order? These are the questions the sixteen-year experience of the WFP has raised.

The WFP has convinced many progressives that independent political organizations can be relevant, such that it is finally attracting sufficient resources to build operations in new states. It has shown it can create the possibility for unions and progressive organizations to shift their political practice away from accepting whatever Democrats offer them, and that it can win local victories against neoliberalism. It has not, however, convinced skeptical observers that it represents a real alternative for those who think our own political parties are no less dominated by oligarchs than the disgraced erstwhile ruling parties of Greece. Unless it does, it will occasionally constrain our American oligarchs, but it would not fundamentally threaten them.

What the Cuomo saga last summer showed is that it will be difficult for the WFP, or its imitators, to challenge powerful Democrats when the chips are down so long as much of its coalition is flatly opposed to doing so. If the WFP wants to become a real alternative, it will either have to convince progressive political actors to change their ways, or it will have to forge ahead without them. It will need to break more decisively with Democrats on program, and it will need to challenge them more frequently and more visibly at the ballot box. Opposing Rahm Emanuel in Chicago is a good start. Brothers and sisters in southern Europe, meanwhile, are raising the bar. Whether the WFP can clear it remains to be seen.