New York Working Families Party Director Sochie Nnaemeka talks with Ben Chin (Maine People’s Alliance) and Melanie Brazzell about the Building Structure Shapes report and the path ahead for NY WFP. 

 

Structure Shapes

How do leaders architect successful organizational structures? This was the question the Structure-Strategy Core Team set out to answer when we convened a working group of movement leaders, funders, and academics as part of the Realizing Democracy Project. What emerged was the Building Structure Shapes report, which examines six organizations that have undergone structure-strategy pivots in the last five years. 

For each organizational case, the report offers a structure shape. These metaphorical shapes — a boat, a big tent, a house, a Rubik’s cube, and a fractal — represent how an organization manages a particular contradiction or tension present in one of the three lenses on structuring. The shapes I chose are concrete, everyday objects, rather than the geometries of organizational charts. What gives them life is that they embody the contradictions organizations wrestle with in their structuring processes, which are creatively managed but never fully resolved by structure-strategy pivots.

A particular tension surfaced as most salient for each of the three lenses on structure used in this project:

  • for membership structures, the tension between scale and depth;

  • for staff structures, the interaction between staff and member power;

  • for movement ecology structures, the balance between affiliate autonomy and coordination.

Though we can look at every organization through all three lenses, I chose to sort the cases according to which lens provided the most learning. I present two cases for each lens to show how organizations have taken different paths when faced with similar structure puzzles, each of which brings its own benefits and challenges.

In this article, we’ll look at one shape — the stool — through a case study of the New York Working Families Party. 

Features of a Stool

A stool is a coalition in which affiliated organizations (the legs of the stool) build a permanent, independent structure (the seat of the stool). In WFP NY’s case, this independent structure is a recognized third party.

What can a stool do? Stools execute coordinated strategy and develop organizational capacities beyond the scope of individual affiliates.

Ideal conditions? A stool brings together diverse constituencies, which align towards a shared aim of progressive governing power and a shared strategy of electoral campaigns. Ideal scope is statewide, though WFP shows the value of networking state chapters into a national party.

 

 

Trade-offs: Higher coordination, lower affiliate autonomy

  • Greater visibility of brand...but this can make vehicle a public target

  • Transparent and accessible decision-making structures...which can also become bureaucratic and proceduralist

  • Strength of independent vehicle...but also conflict around member autonomy

  • Resource-intensiveness of an independent vehicle can create dependency on affiliate resources without member dues

 

Case Study: The Working Families Party 

A stool represents a unique type of coalition, one that requires enormous coordination in order to build a permanent, independent structure — in New York Working Families Party’s case, a party. The legs of NY WFP’s coalitional stool include labor, c4 community organizations, and individual members. By the 2010s, the party had door-knocked and hustled its way to being a preeminent electoral force in state politics. By 2018, twenty years after its founding, it had achieved its goal of ousting moderate Democrats who caucused with Republicans, ending their grip on state politics and opening a path for progressive governing power in the state. Yet internally, the party faced its deepest challenges to date – conflict over a gubernatorial endorsement had led its biggest labor partners to jump ship, taking many of the party’s resources with them and leaving the labor leg of the stool wobbly. Fragmentation occurred when the coordination needed for the stool could not contain the conflicts of individual affiliates asserting their autonomy. In response, new Black leadership took the helm nationally and in New York. Their new vision of WFP 2.0 plans to strengthen and expand the legs of the party’s stool to make it more resilient.

Now nationwide, the party was originally founded in New York, whose unique fusion voting laws allow progressives to run on both the Democratic and WFP ballot lines if they choose, pooling votes. The ballot line gives the party’s big vision a pragmatic tool for leverage in the transactional world of state politics. The Working Families founders agitated for a vision of leftist electoral muscle in the 1990s, a time when third parties were irrelevant and fewer community organizations wanted to get their hands dirty in electoral work. Unions and c4 community affiliates, two legs of the stool, came together to create an independent structure that could execute coordinated electoral strategy and develop electoral capacities beyond the scope of any individual affiliate. To ensure genuine coordination and limit the dominance of bigger players, the party developed complex rules to weight votes and dues-shares. Individual members make up the third leg of the stool, which has been somewhat underinvested in over the years. The party has local chapters and clubs for members, mostly in urban areas, whose main job is to interview regional candidates for endorsements, the bread and butter work of the party.

State recognition of the party brings with it state regulation, which imposes structures that can sometimes hamstring the party. In addition to its coalitional structure, the party has a parallel governance structure mandated by law, including a State Committee of elected representatives from each Congressional district. These must be WFP registrants, a status that requires giving up the right to vote in Democratic primaries. As a result, registration is not synonymous with membership and is limited to those willing to take this step.

By far the biggest imposition by state law is the requirement to endorse a gubernatorial candidate, forcing the party to engage in a high-stakes race. This eventually became a wedge between the trade unions, community organizations, and individual members in the party. While some organizations were done with Governor Cuomo’s broken promises and ready to primary him from the left, many unions wanted to work from within and maintain good relationships with his office (with whom some had to collectively bargain).

Whichever way the party went on the endorsement, they lost. In 2014, after weighing a challenger but ultimately endorsing Cuomo, many public and some private labor unions left the party. After taking the leap in 2018 to endorse a primary challenger, the other major private sector unions departed as well. The coordination required for the party to function was upended by affiliates asserting their own autonomy, leaving the stool wobbly. Yet at the same time, in 2018 the party defeated the moderate Democratic bloc that had been giving Republicans a majority at the statehouse. Twenty years after its founding, NY WFP achieved its goal of making New York a genuine trifecta blue state with a pathway to progressive governance. The coalition’s structure and strategy had run their course and fulfilled their function, and fragmented in the process.

Though painful, this fragmentation made way for revitalization, as a legacy organization became a start-up again. These externally-induced changes paralleled internal changes that gave the party a new direction. Maurice Mitchell was brought in as National Director in 2018 and Sochie Nnaemeka as Director for NY in 2020. The promotion of Black leadership made good on WFP’s past promise to take race and gender seriously. Mitchell has ushered in what he calls WFP 2.0, capitalizing on a post-Bernie landscape of renewed grassroots interest in electoral power and adding big vision values and intersectionality to WFP 1.0’s more sharp-elbowed pragmatism. In New York’s version of WFP 2.0, Nnaemeka has kept the party’s insider approach of using the ballot line to keep electeds in formation. But she has also emboldened its outsider "vote you out" strategy for running progressive challengers like Congressman Jamaal Bowman, who primaried a corporate Democrat and won.

Most importantly, WFP 2.0 aims to build a mass party of the multiracial working class, which requires building out the party’s third leg: its individual member base. Here, the party faces some of the downsides of its high levels of coordination, which can make it top-heavy at times, with a strong organizational structure but lower individual member engagement. Building the individual member base requires strengthening chapters by tapping into the party’s capacities to organize and not just to govern. In addition, leadership is imagining a new fourth leg of the party for social movement formations, like tenant unions, abolitionist groups, and Movement for Black Lives activists. As 501(c)(3)s or those without any incorporation status, they are excluded from other electoral ventures and NY WFP hopes to offer them a political home. While the party will need to recalibrate the balance of decision-making power and coordination among these various legs, a four-legged stool can potentially better withstand conflict and change, leaving it better prepared for structure shifts in the future.

While these pivots are too new to assess, NY WFP 2.0 has passed its first existential challenge with flying colors. Facing Cuomo's new hurdle, an increase in the number of votes required to maintain their ballot line in 2020, the party received more than twice as many votes as needed, proving it is here to stay.

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