Working Families Party: The Most Influential Third Party in the U.S.?

In February 2015, Edwin Gomes became the first candidate running solely on the Working Families Party (WFP) line to win a seat in a state legislature. Gomes beat out four other candidates in a special election to represent Connecticut’s 23rd senate district.

On May 5, 2015, the WFP won another special election – this one to fill a vacant seat in New York’s legislature. Diana Richardson now represents the General Assembly’s 43rd district, covering Crown Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.

These victories are the culmination of decades of bottom-up political organizing, mobilization, and experimentation that stretches back to the early 1990s.

The WFP’s predecessor is the New Party, the brainchild of Daniel Cantor and Joel Rogers, whose 1990 manifesto, “Party Time,” called for the establishment of an alternative to the Democratic Party, which was becoming a more centrist party with the ascendance of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council and its political offspring – including Bill Clinton.

In 1992, the New Party formed to synthesize and politically represent the fragmented efforts of labor unions, community activists, and other progressive organizations.

Part of its strategy entailed challenging anti-fusion laws across the country, which states have imposed in order to prevent minor parties from cross-endorsing major party candidates.

In 1996, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of a local chapter of the New Party in its challenge to Minnesota’s anti-fusion law. The case went to the Supreme Court, which overruled that decision and upheld the state’s ban in Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party.

In 1998, as the New Party began to dissipate, the Working Families Party was created in New York – a state that allows fusion.

Daniel Cantor is the national director of the WFP, which also has chapters in Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Oregon.

The WFP gained a foothold during New York’s gubernatorial election in 1998, when the party endorsed the Democratic challenger against George Pataki, Peter Vallone, on its own party line. Since Vallone (scarcely) received 50,000 votes, it guaranteed the WFP a space on future state ballots.

The WFP converted on its increased visibility. In 2003, it successfully ran Letitia James against a Democratic candidate to win a seat in the New York City Council. In 2009, WFP-backed candidates picked up eight seats, and its members formed the Progressive Caucus with like-minded Democrats. The caucus now comprises 19 members within the 51-member city council.

The WFP has replicated this bottom-up approach across several states – particularly in the northeast where election laws and political attitudes are more favorable to an alternative progressive party.

Connecticut, for instance, also allows minor parties to cross-endorse major party candidates. Moreover, many municipalities in the state prohibit a single party from controlling local boards and require representation by a minor party. In 2007, two WFP candidates were elected to the city council in Hartford.

Following its earliest electoral victories, the WFP began to exert influence of public policy – particularly regarding paid sick days and increases in the minimum wage.

In 2010, for instance, the issue of paid sick days largely affected the outcome of the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial primary. When the expected winner, Ned Lamont, opposed the policy, his challenger, Dan Malloy, came out in favor of it. Malloy went on to become governor, and Connecticut became the first state to require that employers with 50 or more workers offer paid sick leave.

The New York City Council passed a similar law in 2013 – in part due to the efforts of the WFP. Democratic councilwoman Christine Quinn had long opposed the legislation.

In recent months, the WFP has successfully advocated for the policy in other states. In Trenton, New Jersey, the NJ Working Families Alliance gathered enough signatures to put the bill before the city council, which then put it to a referendum. The measure passed by a wide margin in November 2014.

The law, which has been passed in eight other municipalities in the state, survived when a judge dismissed a challenge to it in April 2015.

In February 2015, the Philadelphia City Council passed its own sick leave law after years of opposition from the mayor. It applies to employers with at least 10 workers, and guarantees employees 1 hour of sick time for every 40 hours worked. It went into effect in mid-May and affects 200,000 employees – 40 percent of the city’s workforce.

Currently, 11 states have laws that preemptively bar localities from enacting mandatory sick leave legislation. Efforts to pass paid sick leave policies at the federal level failed in 2004 and 2009.

The WFP has also supported efforts to raise the minimum wage.

Connecticut raised its minimum wage under Governor Dannel Malloy, which will reach $10.10 an hour for workers at companies with at least 50 employees by January 1, 2017.

In some of the most expensive cities across the country, city councils have agreed to raise the minimum wage even higher.

The “Fight for $15” movement has its origins in the town of SeaTac, near the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. When the airline industry refused to negotiate a contract with higher wages, SeaTac residents voted in favor of a citywide minimum wage of $15 – by 77 votes.

Since then, larger cities have followed suit. In June 2014, nearby Seattle pledged to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2017. San Francisco pledged to do the same by 2018.

These changes come at a time when the country is debating how to reverse the long-term trend in income inequality.

According the Economic Policy Institute, the average worker has seen their income rise by 6 percent between 1979 and 2013 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Over that same period, low-wage workers’ incomes fell 5 percent, while high-wage workers saw their incomes increase by 40 percent.

Opponents of a national increase of the minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 argue it would be too heavy-handed and inconsiderate of regional disparities in costs of living. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected that a national floor of $10.10 per hour would cost the country 500,000 jobs.

Supporters of minimum wage increases on a smaller scale point to studies that show that gradual increases in the minimum wage do not significantly affect employment levels. Employers of low-wage workers, such as restaurant owners, often adapt by raising prices – though they do save some money as turnover decreases.

“What’s good for American workers is actually good for the whole society,” Cantor told MSNBC on May 20 after Los Angeles voted to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. “When people have more money in the pocket, they spend more money, which creates a virtuous cycle, in which there is more employment for everyone.”

In Connecticut, WFP State Senator Gomes is a co-sponsor of SB 1044 – the so-called “Wal-Mart bill” – which would fine companies with at least 500 workers $1 for every hour worked by an employee who makes less than $15 an hour.

A report found that the state spends almost $500 million annually to pay for Medicaid and cash assistance for low-income workers. The bill would raise between roughly $200 and $300 million per year in fines.

In Albany, WFP Assemblywoman Richardson is already supporting legislation that addresses a common concern among many of her constituents: affordable housing.

The Crown Heights neighborhood has many residents who suffer from steady increases in rental payments because of a loophole that allows landlords to circumvent rent controls. Renters also complain of gentrification and the practices and policies that drive it.

Richardson supported a bill that recently passed the state Assembly strengthening rental regulations. It will face opposition in the Senate, where Republicans favor extending a tax abatement program that is unpopular in Richardson’s district.

Thus far, the WFP’s legislative success has come during special elections for state seats and municipal elections where fusion is permitted. As the party grows, it will face challenges in electoral environments that are not as receptive to minor parties.

Yet Cantor points to the tea party to indicate that winning more seats is not necessary to effect change.

“They yanked the Republican Party to the right without being a separate party,” he told The American Prospect. “We realized that most of our power in New York comes from our work in Democratic primaries. We don’t have to be on the ballot.”

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