On Labor Day, A Working Families Party Strategy

Julie Kushner and Rafael Navar

On May 5, at the launch of the Maryland Working Families, state director Charly Carter announces MD WF's slate of ten primary candidates—seven of whom went on to win their Democratic primaries. (Maryland Working Families)
“We stand for inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal action.”—UAW Pres­i­dent Wal­ter Reuther, 1946, call­ing for a new pro­gres­sive-labor par­tyThe left-wing mouse that roared”—New York Times, 2013
, on the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­tyThe 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.
Julie Kush­n­er is the Direc­tor of UAW Region 9A. Rafael Navar is the Nation­al Polit­i­cal Direc­tor of CWA. Both are mem­bers of the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Nation­al Advi­so­ry Board.
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