“We stand for independent political action.”—UAW President Walter Reuther, 1946, calling for a new progressive-labor party
“The left-wing mouse that roared”—New York Times, 2013
, on the Working Families Party
The statistics you’ll sometimes hear on Labor Day are true: dropping union density, stagnant wages, growing inequality, and the corporate stranglehold on democracy.
But they don’t tell the whole story. There are also reasons for real optimism. This is a year that has seen low-wage workers step up with a new level of intensity, putting inequality front and center. The fast food workers’ “$15 and a union” mantra has gone mainstream—and is bearing fruit in rising minimum wages across the nation.
From the New Deal to the Great Society, political action has been a powerful tool for working people. We’d like to offer a bright spot on the political front for a movement that is just as ambitious: the Working Families Party. (Full disclosure: We are members of WFP’s national advisory board.)
A new political party? Well, sort of. Stick with us.
We all know that the Republican Party has lunged far to the right, and is firmly allied with the financial and corporate elite who in another time would have been called robber barons. Their aim is a highly concentrated form of trickle-down economics—which never trickles down.
But on too many issues that we care about, the Democratic Party is conflicted. To say they are better than the Republicans is obvious, but also a pretty low bar. The Democratic Party includes a handful of champions, to be sure, but as a party, is also dependent on funding from corporate elites and Wall Street. And the pressure to appeal to wealthy donors is only growing. When Democrats are in control, they have slowed down the pain, but they have done little to reverse the general trend. Scott Walker eviscerated workers’ rights; what Democrat has even proposed dramatically expanding them?
The WFP started in 1998 in New York, and has now spread to seven states and the District of Columbia. For us, building independent political power has sometimes meant working with Democrats to defeat Republicans. But just as often, it means challenging corporate Democrats with more progressive Working Families Democrats. It’s also meant training and recruiting candidates for empty seats, as well as putting forward ballot measures. We must be comfortable working both inside and outside the Democratic Party.
The most famous of our standard bearers is New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who aims to transform the “tale of two cities” into a city that works for everyone. He campaigned on paid sick days for every worker, universal pre-K, reforming stop and frisk, and building and protecting hundreds of thousands of new units of affordable housing. And to the chagrin of cynics, he is delivering on those promises.
But de Blasio is far from the only one. Take Ras Baraka, the new Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who won his race campaigning against the corporate school privatization agenda, despite being outspent 10 to 1. Or Jeff Reardon, a state legislator in suburban Portland, Oregon who took out the Koch brothers’ favorite Democrat in a primary with heavy Working Families support. Or the WFP slate that took over the school board in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Or Cory McCray, the IBEW organizer who won a crowded primary for State Delegate in East Baltimore, and is already talking about building a progressive caucus of legislators. Or any of dozens of state and local candidates we’ve recruited to run as part of our progressive pipeline project—and who may one day become the next generation of progressive candidates for Congress.
Working Families is getting more attention than ever—and deservedly so. Labor leaders and smart progressives in several more states are already at work to put together local Working Families organizations in their states as well.
But this isn’t just about winning a few races. Our aim is to build an independent base of political power that can put forward our progressive, populist values and mean it. America actually needs a political movement that can say that increasing union density is a good thing, without blushing. One that knows that declining wages and eroding retirement security are not a “new normal” we must adjust to; that market solutions are not always wise; and that an increasingly financialized economy only benefits the top.
The WFP model brings together unions with community-based organizations, youth organizations, netroots groups, family farmers, environmentalists and faith leaders. That means power-sharing, but it also means more power to be shared. Labor unions cannot afford to go it alone.
This is a battle of ideas. As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote, those ideas are all that “enables the unions to transcend the ethnic and economic divisions” to build the broad coalitions that we’ll need. Politicians are like a liquid that molds to the shape of the land. We need a movement that can stand firmly on principles if we ever hope to see politicians follow.
At one point in American history, independent political parties like the Populists served as the incubator for new ideas that major parties and mainstream politicians are forced to adopt. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor laws, the 40-hour work week and the direct election of U.S. Senators (who used to be selected by state legislatures, not the voters) were ideas born in third party movements.
On a shoestring operation, the Working Families Party has already succeeded in helping to shift the debate—bringing innovative public policy ideas into the mainstream and winning on them. Take guaranteed paid sick days: a policy that lifts the floor for every worker, but was unheard of in America just a decade ago. Now, it’s becoming mainstream in Democratic politics, as legislation springs from cities to states. Working Families has also been making major advances on a whole gamut of issues that politicians will rarely address on their own. To name a few: expanding retirement security, public financing of elections, the creation of green jobs through retrofitting old homes for energy efficiency, state banks, public financing of elections, and radically rethinking student debt.
This project will take patience, power sharing, resources, and the spine to challenge Democrats as well as Republicans. But as far as we’ve seen, it’s among the best tools we have to take our issues—the issues of the labor movement as well as the broad working class—and force them to the center of debate. And it’s a tool labor leaders would be wise to seriously invest in. It’s time for the labor movement to bring the Working Families Party to scale. We must, if we hope to not just fight back against the attacks on working families and our democratic ideals, but to build a movement with a vision of expanding the middle class and rebuilding democracy.
The CWA and UAW are sponsors of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.