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Pulling the Plug on Working Families

The Left must develop fully independent organizations outside of establishment channels.

Just a few weeks ago, those daring to suggest that a Working Families Party endorsement of the notoriously right-wing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was in the offing were assailed by the WFP’s liberal supporters as cynics at best or GOP moles at worst.

But that, to their evident displeasure, is precisely what materialized last weekend.

The driving forces included, most conspicuously, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who, despite his being slapped down by the governor on charter schools and in his attempt to finance universal pre–K with a millionaires tax, urged delegates to accept on faith his portrait of Cuomo as a genuine progressive blocked by Senate Republicans. (That the governor has supported and engineered a working Republican majority in Albany was left unmentioned.)

As a loyal Democrat, this display of blind partisanship, while plenty unappealing, was what was necessary and required from him. The same cannot be said for the other shoulder on the battering ram, the state’s major unions, who have not (or at least not yet) officially merged operations with Democratic Party.

However, it is probably by now best for them, and surely for us, to dispense with the fiction that there is any meaningful daylight between the two, or that any response other than “how high” will follow the demand of Democratic Party leadership to jump.

Just as revealing as the endorsement itself were the circumstances which framed it. Mirroring the contempt towards the WFP demonstrated repeatedly by the governor’s policies in his first term was that emanating from the party leadership directed toward the party’s Howard Dean wing. The latter, in response to the shit sandwich offered up to them, had made their displeasure known by supporting the insurgent candidacy of Park Slope law professor Zephyr Teachout and by demanding real action from Cuomo on campaign finance reform in exchange for the endorsement.

This provoked the wrath of party insiders who regarded he failure to wave the pom-poms for Governor 1% as tantamount to treason. A concise expression were the remarks of Mike McGuire, the political director for the Mason Tenders of New York City, who professed to be “ashamed [he] ever helped found the WFP.”

“To call yourself the ‘working families’ party and then draw the line in the sand over campaign finance reform is an absolute disgrace,“ McGuire announced on his Facebook page.

Rejecting the activists’ demand that the WFP should receive some meaningful concession in exchange for their endorsement of Cuomo, McGuire shot back, “How about a line in the sand over raising the minimum wage? Or establishing a true living wage? Or fully funding the public transportation system? Or bringing jobs and opportunity and economic development to the pockets of New York City and vast swaths of upstate New York that so desperately need them? When you can’t pay the rent or put food on the table, campaign finance reform is a rich person’s problem. The WFP leadership is now nothing more than a bunch of Park Slope limousine liberals, either literally or figuratively.”

Leave aside the blatant dishonesty of the implication that Cuomo has any interest in pursuing “a true living wage” or other economic policies which help “put food on the table” or “provide jobs” for upstate residents, or that the real estate moguls backing Cuomo’s campaigns have the slightest concern with those who “can’t pay the rent.” What is most glaring here is the hypocrisy of a six-figure union boss smearing as “limousine liberals” the rank-and-file activist base of the party who likely have salaries far below the six figures typical of labor leaders like him.

Unfortunately, McGuire will almost certainly get away with it, as the targets of his rant rarely if ever hit back. This despite their possession of a huge club to wield if they chose to use it: the indictments Robert Fitch memorably assembled in his classic 2006 exposé Solidarity for Sale.

As Fitch documented, union leadership salaries are achieved through concessionary contracts negotiated with industry, their well-stuffed bank accounts often derived from funds directly or indirectly stolen from local treasuries for which they escape prosecution via “get out of jail free cards” provided by “labor Democrats.”

Completing the circle, blank checks to the Democratic Party from near-bankrupt unions provide leadership with “seats at the table” where they collude in policies responsible for a decades-long collapse in union density now at single digits in the private sector. Doing so provides them with a reputation for “seriousness” and “pragmatism” making possible lateral moves into establishment think tanks and corporate boards.

The WFP deal is just one more episode in this depressing charade. And if the history offered by Fitch is not enough, there is also Eric Chester’s brilliant 2004 historical monograph True Mission: Socialism and the Labor Party Question in the US, which identifies a consistent pattern of labor unions undermining repeated attempts to form independent left parties going back more than a century, raising hopes and then dashing them by folding the efforts back into the Democratic Party — then, as now, controlled by elite corporate interests.

Readers of Chester’s book will discover why early socialists, including most notably Eugene Debs, vehemently opposed attempts by party moderates to form a Labor Party based in the existing unions of his day, whose leadership was as compromised and capitulationist then as New York state labor leaders showed themselves to be last weekend.

The current generation of leftists have either forgotten or, more likely, never learned this history. They have fetishized unions and union leadership taking for granted as the best hope of third party organizing, in the formation of a Labor Party created at the initiative of existing unions. Chester shows how this hope is a chimera: to expect what Debs called “the bourgeois unions” to act in the broad interest of the working class by challenging the two corporate parties is as unrealistic as the expectation that the expropriators will expropriate themselves.

By unmasking the New York union leadership as craven and unprincipled, the WFP convention debacle provided the Left what could be a teachable moment, forcing the general realization that unions are deeply rooted in the capitalist system and in the individualist ethos which supports it.

The Left must begin to develop fully independent organizations outside of establishment channels which are able to seriously contend with capital and erode the foundations on which its legitimacy rests. Anything less is a recipe for failure.