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The WFP model and the Warren endorsement

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Photo of Bill DeBlasio

The WFP model involves unions, organizations, and individual members all in the same party. This has presented challenges, but also lessons left organizers can learn from its 20 year history.

In 2001, the Working Families Party (WFP) was barely two years old. Members of the central Brooklyn political club wanted the party to back their preferred candidate for city council, Steve Banks. When the club met, there were a couple dozen WFP members present. They voted overwhelming for the party to support Banks.

But the other candidate in the race was a party co-founder with many strong relationships in and around the WFP: Bill de Blasio.

The endorsement process in New York has always involved party members interviewing candidates and then making a recommendation to a body of the labor and community affiliate organizations. With a supermajority, the affiliates can override the recommendation – which is precisely what they did with the Banks recommendation, keeping the party out of the crowded race. Some members were understandably angry, but it was not the first or the last time they would grapple with the power dynamics between individuals and organizations in the WFP.

The rest of the de Blasio story is history. He became a city councilor, and a few years later, the WFP ran his citywide campaign for Public Advocate. They ultimately played an important role in his successful bid for the mayor’s office, and many WFP staffers went in to his administration. Whatever his limitations have been, the party gets a real portion of the credit for paid sick leave, universal pre-k, and the hundreds of union contracts that de Blasio settled after Bloomberg’s union-busting years.

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Fast forward to 2019, and the process by which the Working Families Party decided to endorse Elizabeth Warren for president has created a great deal of anger and confusion. Of course, some are – understandably! – angry with the substance of the decision, arguing somewhat foolishly that the party has “written itself out of history” by choosing not to back Bernie. Many are concerned about the process. They suggest that the WFP “rigged” the system for Warren, or that it was designed to allow the “leadership” to override the “membership.”

It has been a tense moment to say the least, and as a Bernie supporter, I was not happy with the outcome. But in the best case, the tension, the concerns, the accusations present an opportunity to grapple with a fundamental dilemma for the left with respect to building party and party-like formations: how should such entities balance individual members and organizational affiliates?

From the day it was born the Working Families Party has grappled consciously with this issue. Early internal party memos describe the tensions of balancing individuals and institutions. And these are live questions in other left parties globally. The British Labour Party for example, took its leftward lurch when it gave a more powerful role to individual members, and yet organized labor continues to wield power in the party as organized labor.

If the Left is serious about having hegemony within a majoritarian governing coalition to build a democratized, sustainable economy, and about using executive and legislative power to dismantle racism and other forms of oppression, we must grapple with this essential question of how to balance individuals and organizations in party-building. Having answered the question in different ways throughout the years, the WFP has a lot to offer. It is unique in recent left memory in this regard.  

The power of labor

As the anecdote that opens the piece suggests, the WFP’s balancing has typically tilted more toward organizations than individuals. The great irony in the immense public frustration with the recent presidential endorsement is that it gives far more power to individuals than has been the case historically.

The founding insight of the WFP was, in many ways, to take the power and resources of the left-wing of the existing labor movement, combine them with activist energy, and put both forces to work winning elections and hammering home policy outcomes. It is hard to overstate how complicated such a project is. Even the most progressive wing of the labor movement has a profound, immediate, organizational need to maintain a productive relationship with elected officials. Unions have a very different relationship to members than, for example, a political organization like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose members are self-selecting. As a baseline structural relationship, union members are covered by a collective bargaining unit where they work, pay dues, and expect material benefits as a result. Union members are of course sometimes willing to support projects that are not in their immediate self-interest, but this presupposes a powerful union that has helped to negotiate a strong contract.

All this means that the decision to primary an incumbent is a big deal. This contrasts in a striking way, for example, with most post-2016 DSA electoral work.  Accountable to self-selecting individual members and unencumbered by formal ties to large institutions, primarying incumbents from the left is the raison d’être for DSA’s electoral efforts. The dynamics are just as complicated for organized labor inside legislatures; again, even for the progressive wing of the labor movement, the decision to spend down political capital on broad working-class issues rather than on those that are most salient for members constitutes an actual short-term sacrifice (even if there are obvious long-term benefits, both practical and political).

Against all odds, the WFP managed to execute this model with reasonable success over many years, actually gaining more labor affiliates as they amassed power. The party used resources, for example, to primary a sitting District Attorney, making the campaign a referendum on New York State’s racist Rockefeller drug laws. The party won the race, and a state where two of the three branches of government were in control of the Republican Party began immediately to dismantle the laws. The party has repeated this model – which I think of as “primarying for policy” – in many different contexts over the years.

In the party’s home base in New York, their battle with Governor Cuomo has led many unions to leave the organization. Over 20 years, there has been an arc of increasing and then decreasing affiliation of the major unions. The decreasing side of the arc is a direct product of the governor. But in Connecticut, for example, the party’s second oldest state operation, they have gradually accumulated labor affiliates without the kind of ruptures that happened in New York. In large part, this hinges on state-level electoral law: New York law forces the party to make a choice in the governor’s race in order to have ballot access, while Connecticut does not. Law in the latter state has never forced the party into a battle for which it was not fully prepared.

At the national level as well, labor continues to play a significant role in the party. However, the WFP has also drawn increasingly close to the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) in recent years – no doubt in part as a result of the bruises in New York, where organized labor has more money than basically anywhere else in the country (excepting perhaps California). There is a “back to the future” story here: the WFP’s predecessor organization, the New Party, essentially functioned as the electoral arm of ACORN in the 1990s, and CPD includes much of the former ACORN network. 

Labor unions and groups like CPD are, in some ways, vastly different creatures. But for the WFP – and for the left more generally, I believe – they drive much the same dilemma: on the one hand, if the party gives too much weight to individuals, the organizations have much less reason to engage and fund the party. On the other hand, if the party gives too much weight to the organizations, individuals will take their activism elsewhere. Again, DSA, unencumbered by institutional relationships, responds much more directly to the will of its individual members.

The Warren endorsement

Some left-wing narratives that have developed around the WFP’s decision to back Elizabeth Warren display confusion about the party’s basic model, its trajectory as an organization, and also the question that drives the party forward and that the whole left must ultimately reckon with – how best to stitch together organizations and individuals in the same formation.

The endorsement was decided by two equally weighted halves, reflecting the party’s long-standing tension: individuals on the one side, and representatives of state and organizational affiliates on the other. Given the history of WFP, a 50/50 split is, to me, totally reasonable. Terms like “superdelegate” miss the mark. The organizational votes – brought together in what the WFP calls its National Committee – represent bodies or constituencies, state committees, affiliate members and the like. The individuals who National Committee members represent are free to vote as individuals and in some cases did. But the point of the WFP model is to engage organizations as organizations and to balance that engagement with individual party members and identifiers. 

As party leaders have written publicly, the 2019 process actually weighted individuals more than the last presidential endorsement process. And in general, in recent years the WFP has been attempting to tilt the historic balance of organizations and individuals toward the latter. This is driven by a number of factors, including the expansion of the organization well beyond New York, in places where organized labor cannot provide the same financial resources. In New York, the tilt toward organizations was often worth it because of the financial and political clout the party could leverage.

The National Committee members – like the rest of the organization – voted by secret ballot, so who voted precisely which way is unclear. But by all accounts, the Center for Popular Democracy and its affiliates were key champions of Warren in the WFP process.  

The sad reality for Sanders supporters like me is not that the system was rigged, but that we did not organize within it more effectively. Certainly, CPD’s relationship with many institutional members was an advantage in Warren’s effort to garner National Committee support. But Sanders supporters within the party and the campaign itself could have sought those same votes with more rigor. As a very concrete example of how seriously the Warren campaign and her supporters took the process (and of my own failures in this regard), a Warren supporter attempted to whip my state committee vote – and yet I did not do the same individual-level outreach for Sanders.

The process was far from perfect, but it was not, in my estimation, a foregone conclusion that Warren would come out the winner. Sanders could have juiced his support on the individual side (where he likely got more of his vote anyway, but not all of it) encouraging his own lists to register for the process. But the more important work, of course, would have been to organize directly in the constituencies to which National Committee members are responsive, as well as the members themselves.

How Working Families Party can do better

While I think it is important to clarify misperceptions about the WFP and the presidential endorsement process, the party could have done better – and can yet do better going forward.

The National Committee

While it is the case that Bernie supporters and the campaign itself could have lobbied National Committee members directly and more effectively, it is also the case that it would have taken some basic work. The names, affiliations, and, in my view, email addresses of each member should be on prominent display on the WFP’s website, and yet they are not. Even in my home in New York, where I cast one state committee vote for Bernie (and another as an individual), I actually do not know which two individuals carried the outcome of our state process to the National Committee. I could have easily asked around – and regret that I didn’t organize in this more precise way – but the party could also make such a prospect easier. Even something as simple as making it possible to contact NC members by email would provide a sense of clarity about and connection to the organizational side for individuals in the party.

Defining membership

In my estimation, the WFP is caught between seeing individuals in the party as part of an email list and as dues paying members with a vested stake in the organization’s well-being and trajectory. That these two groups were mashed together into a single 50% of the presidential endorsement vote suggests that the party sees the difference yet is also unresolved on how to proceed with it. Asking people to affirm the party’s values in order to participate in the presidential process was a useful way to bring new people into the party’s orbit. But on the other hand, it seems intuitive to me that someone who pays monthly dues should have greater influence over the party’s trajectory than someone who signed up for the email list two days ago.

As the party eases toward a greater role for individuals, a path that it has been on for several years, defining membership more precisely – and distinguishing it from loose supporters – will be important for the party. To this end, the party can look to its own history of developing WFP members in the late 90s and early 2000s, before building a digital base was on most people’s radar. On the one hand, organizations had much more power then, but on the other, members were individuals who paid dues and/or registered for the party. They met in rooms, and made plans.

Lessons for the Left

As a purely defensive matter, Sanders and Warren supporters will have to come together after the primary, whoever is at the top of the ticket. Trump is very capable of winning another four years in office, and it must be all hands on deck to keep proto-fascism from becoming fascism proper.

But taking a minute to imagine new horizons, there are vital lessons to learn from the hard work, the ups and (yes) the downs of the WFP. Perhaps if we think New Deal liberalism is the best we can do, then maybe the left can avoid the dilemmas that the WFP has faced. We can stumble along with inchoate coalitions and maybe even get legislation as strong as we saw in the 1930s and 1960s. But if we think a more serious democratization of our economy and society is in order, we may well wind up in something like Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity in order to have hegemony in a majoritarian governing coalition. In that case, there is literally no contemporary U.S. model that I know of to study and engage other than the WFP, because no one else has spent 20 years trying to hold together many organizations and individuals in the same party.

We ignore the WFP’s successes, limitations, and dilemmas to our own detriment. On other hand, if we take the organization seriously, grapple with its underlying dilemmas, and learn lessons from both its successes and mistakes, we will be in a stronger position to win the kind of world we must win if we are to keep the planet from burning.

This piece is being co-published with our friends at the Stansbury Forum.