Oregon labor leaders ponder political party for workers

Seeing the growing influence of corporate cash on the Democratic and Republican parties, some U.S. union leaders are asking whether working people need their own political party.

“Working Families” parties have already formed in New York and Connecticut, and in April, the head of the New York party pitched the idea to Oregon labor leaders.

New York’s Working Families Party, founded in 1998, has polled as high as 24 percent in local races, and is credited with helping win a $2-an-hour increase in New York’s minimum wage.

Advocates of forming a pro-worker third party admit they face a giant obstacle: America’s winner-take-all political system makes it hard for third parties to get anywhere. For a pro-labor party to do more good than harm, it needs a way around the twin pitfalls of third parties: the “wasted vote” problem (“why vote for them if you know they’ll lose?”) and the “spoiler” problem (draining votes from the guy you sorta’ dislike helps to elect the guy you really dislike.)

Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party of New York, thinks he has an answer to those problems. It’s called electoral fusion — also known as “cross-endorsement” or “multiple-party nomination.” Under electoral fusion, any party that meets certain minimum qualifications can get a line on the ballot, and can use that ballot line to run its own candidates — or to endorse another party’s candidate.

The Working Families Party of New York, for instance, interviews Democratic and Republican candidates, and endorses the candidate most in line with the bread-and-butter issues that affect working people. If neither major-party candidate is an ally, the party runs its own candidate. In 2004, the Working Families Party endorsed Democrat Charles Schumer for U.S. Senate. Thus, Schumer’s name appeared on the ballot twice — once as a Democrat and once as the candidate of the Working Families Party. Supporters of the Working Families Party — 155,000 of them — voted for Schumer on the Working Families Party ballot line.

Electoral fusion used to exist everywhere in the United States — until about 100 years ago, when the Democratic and Republican parties moved to outlaw the practice in almost every state. Today it’s legal in just a handful of states, and common only in New York. In New York, three minor parties presently have ballot-line status: The Working Families Party, the Conservative Party, and the Independence Party.

To bring fusion back in Oregon would take legislation, litigation or a ballot initiative, Cantor said.

He found interest in the idea among Oregon union leaders.

Ken Allen, executive director of Oregon Council 75 of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he likes the idea of an independent political party tied to issues that matter to people as workers.

Tom Leedham, president of Teamsters Local 206 and a two-time candidate for his union’s national presidency, has long supported the idea.

“Why is it illegal in this state to cross-endorse a candidate?” Leedham asked. “Does that protect the general public?”

Leedham supports electoral fusion because it’s more democratic, he said. “If we have more democracy, working people in Oregon are going to be stronger for it.”

Leedham will be part of an exploratory committee to help test support for the idea in Oregon.

Madelyn Elder, president of Communications Workers of America Local 7901, would likely be a member of such a committee. Elder said creating a Working Families Party would be a way for the labor movement to fight for “good schools, good jobs and good government” without wading into “controversial issues that have nothing to do with economics, such as gay marriage, abortion or gun control.”

In practice, Elder said, a Working Families Party in Oregon might endorse mostly Democrats. But there would also be Republicans they would back, and some Democrats they would not.

“There’s a lot of people who might not vote for a Democrat or Republican,” Elder said, “but they might vote for a different party line.”

For Jeff Anderson, legislative director at United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, the idea appeals politically and personally.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, when Oregon had fusion, Anderson’s great-grandfather Theodore Bernards was elected to the Oregon Legislature on the ballot line of the Union Party. The Union Party was an alliance of the Grange (farmers), the Knights of Labor (an early union), and Prohibitionists. For over a decade, the Union Party, and later the People’s Party, held the balance of power in Oregon, and joined with the Democrats to elect Sylvester Pennoyer governor in 1886 and 1890.

“Oregon has a history of being a populist state with an independent streak,” Anderson said. “I think [fusion] meets the needs of taking away wedge issues and lets us get back to workplace issues.”

Anderson said he plans to find out more about the Working Families Party by talking with UFCW leaders in New York, where the union is one of the party’s biggest backers.

Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt was initially skeptical about electoral fusion, but warmed to the idea after meeting with Cantor.

“Certainly it has been used to good effect in New York,” Nesbitt said. “Whether it can be used to good effect in Oregon remains to be seen.”

Nesbitt worries that fusion would benefit better-organized third parties, like the Libertarian Party. Considered more conservative than the Republican Party, the Libertarians have acted as spoilers in the current system. But Nesbitt said he’s open to exploring the idea.

Even if third parties don’t win office, Cantor said, they can win if their agendas get taken up by the major parties. The Working Families Party platform is about higher wages, universal health care, honest government and fiscal conservatism, meaning spending tax dollars well and not giving out tax breaks.

Cantor is a former union organizer who served as the labor coordinator for Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, said unions have been working within the Democratic Party for 70 years, and the party has been drifting ever further away from labor’s core issues. Cantor said Working Families goal with the Democrats is not to end the relationship but to change it.

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