IMAGE: CHAD CROWE
In December, labor biggies like former state AFL-CIO president Tim Nesbitt joined with leaders from the Teamsters and public-employee unions around a plan to form a new labor-backed party in 2006.
Its presumptive title: the Working Families Party of Oregon.
If they successfully create that third party, then those union leaders want Oregon to adopt New York's system of "fusion" voting. In that system, third parties can use their ballot line for other parties' candidates.
The underlying political science of fusion voting is that it gives third parties a chance to show their strength by demonstrating how many votes they collect on their ballot line. The theory is that candidates will know how much support they got from that party, and be accountable to it.
"If you organize to get candidates elected with your 10...percent of the vote," Nesbitt says, "and they know that your voters voted for them because of that one issue, they're going to tend to deliver on that issue."
About 16 percent of Oregon's workforce is union, but unions say higher voter participation among its members translates to labor representing 23 percent of the state electorate. Unions are also a reliable source of cash and legwork for Democrats.
Labor organizers say part of the impetus behind the Working Families strategy is to give unions leverage over wayward Democrats who don't defend labor goals like the minimum wage or Oregon Health Plan. A larger goal is to win back traditionally Democratic voters who would back candidates supporting universal health care and tax fairness but defect to Republicans over non-economic "wedge" issues such as gay marriage, abortion or gun control.
"We're aiming our sights at people who are culturally conservative...working-class people who vote against their own economic self-interest because the Democrats haven't offered an economic program for a long time," says Barbara Dudley, one of the effort's leaders and a former executive director for Greenpeace USA and the National Lawyers Guild.
Forming a minor party in Oregon takes 19,000 signatures, which Working Families organizers plan to gather in the spring. They then hope to persuade the 2007 Legislature to restore a fusion-voting option to Oregon's ballot, which had that choice during third parties' heyday more than a hundred years ago.
Madelyn Elder, president of the 1,100-member Communications Workers of America Local 7901, is an out-and-proud lesbian who has long fought within labor circles for gay rights. But Elder was quick to sign on to the Working Families approach, despite its inattention to a staple Democrat issue like gay rights.
"Gay marriage is not going to make a difference on most people's dinner plate," Elder says. "It's not going to put gas in their car or get them to work."
State Democratic Party chairman Jim Edmunson says the third-party strategy may be based on a flawed theory that splintering into smaller groups gains more power.
"If you look at the success nationally of Republicans, they have done it through consolidating their coalitions," Edmunson says, "rather than having a hodgepodge of groups who are all advancing relatively narrow agendas."
But Nesbitt thinks otherwise. He says making candidates accountable for a Working Families agenda, in effect, takes a successful page from the "right-to-life" playbook.
In the six years Working Families has been active in New York, its biggest electoral victory was a county district attorney with 54 percent of the vote. In 2004, the New York party polled about 2 percent in statewide votes in which it endorsed Democrats Charles Schumer for Senate and John Kerry for president.
So if the theory works, and social conservatives will vote for a Democrat on a Working Families ballot line, why is the party getting such low numbers?
Nesbitt and Dudley say that question misses the point of how the party used the carrot and stick of endorsement to get Democrats and Republicans in New York to pass a statewide minimum-wage increase.
And Nesbitt adds that in a close race, a candidate "would die for that 2 percent."