A Working Third Party
"There are two models for building a third party in New York State," Cantor says. "There's the Liberal Party model, where you wield the ballot line for your benefit, to leverage jobs and patronage. The older model is the American Labor Party, which was more organic. You also wield the line, but you try for the party to have some life outside the line, with meetings, clubs, trainings, retreats." So far, the WFP has established a dozen chapters and clubs with nearly 4,000 dues-paying members.
"Already we've begun to have an impact," Cantor says. "In Hempstead, where we helped get two people elected to the town council, they're hiring a tenant to be the Tenant Advocate. The living-wage ordinance in Rockland is a huge victory. The minimum wage will be first up for us after November. But one of our biggest problems is, we have to figure out how to wag the dog and not just be the tail that gets wagged."
How not to be a mere adjunct of the Democratic Party, especially in the top-of-the-ballot races, which draw most public attention, is a complicated problem that is rooted in the forces that birthed the WFP, and it is not an issue that is about to go away. Certainly the party's early and enthusiastic endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the US Senate race puts the matter front and center. What kind of progressive third party gets into bed with a First Lady who once said, "There is no left in the Clinton White House"? The honest answer: one that is not strong enough yet to do anything different without blowing up its coalition, and whose leaders and members have chosen instead to build for the day when they can act more independently.
"We don't have a huge amount of leverage right now, and we just don't have the track record and political power to begin dictating whether this candidate is acceptable or not," Master of the CWA acknowledges. Nationally, the CWA is run by Morton Bahr, a big supporter of the Clinton Administration, and whether or not Master likes to admit it, for that reason alone he had no wiggle room on the Hillary endorsement. "But in the process of our interviewing her for the endorsement, she's heard from UAW people on how her position on trade is no good, and there's been some impact on her speaking out for the right to organize and the need to raise the minimum wage."
Still, the Hillary pill has not gone down easily. "One-third of our members think she's a hero," said one of the WFP's staffers, referring especially to its African-American and Latino members in places like Brooklyn and Queens. "One-third are just 'eh' on her, but agree that she's better than Lazio. And one-third probably think she's a dyke, and I don't mean that in the positive sense." Ericka Bozzi Gomez agrees with this picture. "I definitely have a separate column for my Yes votes for Zebrowski and for Hillary. But I tell the one-third who don't like her to put the 880,000 minimum-wage earners in the state ahead of whatever they think of her personally."
For Jim Duncan, party co-chairman, this was a no-brainer. "If we draw 150,000 to 200,000 votes that help elect Hillary Clinton, every politician in the state is going to stand up, take notice and want those votes in the future," he told the thousand delegates who came to the party's state convention earlier this year. "And I can promise that we will deliver those votes only to those candidates and elected officials who deliver for us--on raising wages, improving workers' comp benefits, funding healthcare, childcare and education." This argument has even convinced some notable supporters of Ralph Nader's presidential campaign (ironically, since the WFP is backing Al Gore for President). "If people are going to vote for Hillary over Lazio, which certainly makes sense," says Jim Hightower, "what better way to put your vote to work for the long-term progressive agenda, which the WFP represents in New York, than by voting on the party's Line H?"
For most WFPers, the real question is not whether they should take ideologically pure positions on races in which they are still but a small player. It is to figure out how to keep their multicultural coalition growing while acknowledging that the party's membership has divergent interests. Co-chairwoman Bertha Lewis of ACORN says, "If this is not going to just be a labor party or a community-organization party, we are going to have lots of conversations where race, class and gender matter."
The next year will be a proving time for the Working Families Party. It has its eye on a number of forty-odd seats on the New York City Council opening up, thanks to term limits. In several of these races, it will fight to have its candidate win the Democratic primary, although in a few white working-class districts in the outer boroughs the WFP hopes to be decisive in the general election. Yet, while those races provide opportunities, the mayoral battle among the Democrats could strain the party's internal alliances. And the hard work of building local chapters and screening local candidates will never end.
But an infectious sense that working people can stand together against larger forces in order to claim some justice and security seems to be on the rise. The WFP's small victories and savvy organizing are rebuilding hope at a time when cynicism and withdrawal from politics seem like the only options to many. "This is what people my age have been looking for--a movement," says twentysomething activist Alan Van Capelle. "A way to bring community and labor together."
See www.votewfp.org for more information.