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Why Workers Need the Working Families Party

September 9, 2015
By CWA President Chris Shelton

Washington DC – With widening inequality and Republicans (and Democrats) beholden to Wall Street, it's time for unions and progressive leaders to help jumpstart a new party. Every year on Labor Day, the mainstream media serves up a predictable parade of statistics about the declining rate of union membership and the growing economic inequality that characterizes the nation. Together, these trends have left more families struggling to make ends meet, buried in debt, or worried that they are one layoff from losing their home.

But there's something just as worrisome: the apparent inability of the current political system to address these issues before the American middle class evaporates entirely (along with the polar ice caps) and the nation becomes a full-fledged plutocracy.

The wealthiest 1 percent has captured virtually all the gains of the economic recovery, and has started plowing outrageous sums of money into politics and lobbying. They’re buying politicians so they can rig the rules to their own benefit. The Koch brothers alone have pledged to spend nearly a billion dollars on the presidential race. That's about twice the entire budget of the city of Cleveland.

Worrisome indeed—unless we start doing something different. And that’s where the hope lies: Across this country, people are beginning to do exactly that. From the Wisconsin Capitol occupation to Occupy Wall Street, from the DREAMers to Moral Mondays, from the People’s Climate March to the Black Lives Matter movement, something has changed over the last few years. Movements that demand justice are growing louder and cannot be ignored. They are the source of my hope on this Labor Day.

We need to change not just hearts and minds but also public policies. That’s why a handful of elected officials like Senator Elizabeth Warren, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and even Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign have created such intense enthusiasm: They’ve been able to speak authentically to at least some of the values that are animating those movements.

That’s also the reason for the growth of the Working Families Party, a party that stands unequivocally with the labor movement and with progressives. My union, the Communications Workers of America, along with other unions and community organizing groups, helped found the party in New York.

By methodically building a local base of support as well as a candidate training school, the party managed by 2013 to elect a progressive majority on the New York City Council, which required winning Democratic primaries and beating candidates backed by millions in real-estate money. Together with the new progressive mayor, they enacted guaranteed paid sick days for all workers and passed a living-wage law, substantially curtailed the abuse of stop and frisk and set ambitious emissions-reduction targets.

Region 1 of CWA (covering the Northeast), which until recently I headed, helped launch Working Families in Connecticut and New Jersey, based on the party’s success in New York. But in the past few years, the pace of interest in the WFP’s brand of independent politics has quickened. The party is now organizing in nine states, and even in the newer states, early successes are encouraging: A few city councilors here, a state legislator there, a ballot initiative for a $15 minimum wage here (on the ballot in Washington, D.C., in 2016). Pretty soon, it starts adding up.

This year saw one of the ultimate corporate Democrats, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, face a stiff challenge over his massive school closures from Chuy Garcia and Chicago’s United Working Families. The Mayor was narrowly re-elected—but the city saw a new class of Working Families–backed candidates elected, forming the biggest progressive caucus the city council had ever seen. Progress doesn’t always come all at once, but it comes.

As the new international president of my union, I hope other labor and progressive leaders will join me in helping to jumpstart WFPs across the country. It’s a strategy we can’t afford to neglect.

But wait—a new party?

The financial and corporate elite, who already totally control one party, have their hooks halfway into the other. There's no other way to explain the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive global trade deal being negotiated in secret, backed by a Democratic president and enough Democratic members of Congress to give it bipartisan cover. The politics are an echo of NAFTA, and the impact could be much worse.

It's not news that the Republican Party has lunged far to the right, and is now fully controlled by the robber barons of the financial elite. The Republican presidential primary has become a terrifying contest of who can exhibit greater cruelty toward working people, immigrants, women, and people of color. Donald Trump has risen to the top of the Republican polls by seeming to almost drip with contempt for anyone who isn't a millionaire.

But the Democratic Party is conflicted. Many of our best champions run as Democrats, but the Democratic Party as a whole is also distressingly dependent on funding from corporate elites and Wall Street. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is just one of several Republicans who have built their careers by eviscerating workers' rights. How many Democrats have proposed dramatically expanding them? When Democrats are in control, they slow the pain, but they don’t reverse the trend.

So yes, a new party. A Working Families Party.

That doesn’t mean walking away from Democrats altogether—the remaining differences between the two major parties are significant, and Republican rule would mean ruin for tens of millions of poor and working Americans. The next several Supreme Court appointments alone will be reason enough for progressives to vote Democratic and oppose whomever the Republican Party nominates for president next November. In 2016, union members and progressives will mobilize to defeat right-wing Tea Party Republicans in Congress and everywhere we can—even when their opponents are mediocre Democrats. 

But neither can we walk away from vision—a vision of a politics that truly addresses the concerns of the working class. Because without vision, we’ll forever be asked to accept half a loaf, and then a few slices, and then a few crumbs, and eventually, nothing at all.

This article first appeared in THE AMERICAN PROSPECT on September 7, 2015.

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