Understanding Chicago’s Ward Organizations
As folks head to the polls to close out Chicago’s 2023 election, let’s take a moment to examine Chicago’s ward organizations, usually referred to as independent political organizations (IPOs).
The IPOs played such an important part in both the 2019 and 2023 municipal elections, that it would benefit socialists to consider how to relate to them and how they might factor into the project of building a workers party. Especially considering the IPOs’ role in getting Brandon Johnson from less than 3% name recognition to landing in the run-off of the third largest city in the country.
Please note that, while this article hopes to loosely sketch out the role of IPOs within Chicago’s political ecosystem, a more in-depth article exploring their history was authored by Simon Swartzman for Midwest Socialist in 2021. Also, this article is focused on observations from my time in 33rd Ward Working Families (33WF) from 2018–2023, which may differ from the experiences of other IPOs or even other members of 33WF.
What are they?
IPOs tend to be localized and politically fluid spaces.
Localized in that they represent struggle in a fixed area — typically a given ward but sometimes spanning a few wards. Chicago is very unique in that it has an unusually large city council, consisting of 50 seats representing wards across the city. This creates a situation where grassroots movements have to achieve a large number of electoral victories in order to meaningfully influence city council. The positive flip side is that it also means grassroots activists have smaller geographic areas to build their bases in, making ward-level organizing more defined and digestible.
Fluid in that they don’t inherently represent a specific set of politics: folks are welcome whether they are socialists, abolitionists, liberals, etc. Some IPOs are more explicitly socialist. Others are more contested, representing a wider spectrum of politics. Generally speaking, whatever politics most members hold at a given time will be the politics of the ward group at that time. The politics of the group can also shift over time as members adopt new ideas, or as old members leave and new ones join.
As politically fluid spaces, the work that IPOs do between major struggles also has the potential to move them more to the left or the right based on: the ebb and flow of political movements — like Black Lives Matter, Me Too, etc. — and the collaboration with other groups like unions, sibling IPOs, abolitionist groups, socialist organizations, etc. This means it’s important for socialist and abolitionist members to speak up within these spaces and for socialist and abolitionist groups to collaborate with them in struggle.
For example, many founding members of 33WF were explicitly socialists. However, most of the membership has tended to run the spectrum of leftism. But ever since the 2020 Uprising, many members now identify as abolitionists. In any event, anyone is welcome that is interested in participating in any of our work: whether that is campaigning for Rossana, collecting petition signatures for ballot referendums, helping us when we ran a foodbank out of our IPO office, etc.
In essence, an IPO is essentially a miniature political party, scoped to a specific ward or geographic area. Since institutional representation begins at the ward level via the alderperson, IPOs are the logical base of bottom-up electoral organizing in Chicago. IPOs also hold the potential to be tied together into larger formations across a city. Through groups like United Working Families, IPOs even have the potential to be unified with labor.
What do they do?
The primary work of a ward IPO is to contest for local elections: aldermanic races, ward-level Democratic Party Committeeman, etc. Logically, if you want to win ward-level elections, you need to build a base in that ward. This might sound obvious, but the way in which IPOs are often overlooked demonstrates that this bit of common sense is not so common.
Aside from being electoral vehicles, IPOs are also capable of engaging in other work between electoral cycles. Based on the concrete experience of 33WF, ward groups can and do: connect with other organizations of struggle in the ward like tenants unions, immigrants rights groups, or mutual aid networks. They can also canvass neighbors as an auxiliary to the alder’s office for programs like Participatory Budgeting, support workers striking within the ward, or collect petitions for referenda like lifting the ban on rent control or #TreatmentNotTrauma, fundraise for larger political issues such as abortion access, or host a version of cop-watch in case ICE agents were spotted in the ward. We have even served as a community space to host a local family’s baby shower, and a special couple’s wedding party!
In other words, the non-electoral organizing that happens between elections is not optional: it is absolutely essential. It allows IPOs to build the infrastructure, organizing experience, community relationships, interpersonal relationships, and recruitment necessary to make the electoral campaigns successful.
Regarding infrastructure: having a physical office in a ward to provide space for organizing and socializing is indispensable whether or not there is an election. With infrastructure like this, IPOs become both political and physical anchors of struggle within communities. These offices have been bases that could be used by the IPO itself, but also could be used as an organizing space for socialist groups organizing in the ward for Democratize ComEd, feminist groups needing space for art builds before protests, etc.
The office obviously comes in handy for elections specific to the ward. But it also helps anchor campaigns that span across numerous wards. For example, one ward-level IPO obviously can’t bottom-line something city-wide like a mayoral campaign. But it can be relied on to hold down its respective ward for the city-wide campaign, just as we have actively done for Brandon Johnson.
Foundations for a political party?
Given that most Chicago elections are rooted at the ward level, it also makes sense that any concrete attempt to build a political party would require, at a minimum, a network of IPOs that were battle-tested to form the foundation of that party.
Based on the history of the British Labor Party or Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo, any attempt to build a worker’s party would also require coalition building with organized labor. This is important to note as many IPOs have gone out of their way to collaborate with various parts of Chicago’s political ecosystem both during and between election campaigns. Many IPOs have also developed relationships with United Working Families, which operates as a political arm for several unions and has explicitly stated its desire to build a political party.
Collaboration has also been increasing between IPOs. In Chicago’s northwest side, 33WF teamed up with 30th United, United Neighbors of the 35th Ward, 39th Ward Neighbors United, and United Northwest Side to host a progressive mayoral forum. These IPOs endorsed Brandon Johnson for mayor, which created an organizing opportunity for the northwest side groups to collaborate to knock doors for him and their respective aldermanic candidates. It is through this sort of shared struggle that individuals and organizations learn to build trust and unity from the bottom-up.
Whether electoral campaigns win or lose, they provide an opportunity to get people organized. Based on Chicago’s city council, wards provide the smallest defined area to focus on that organizing, while creating ward-level beachheads of electoral and non-electoral struggle.
With all of this taken together, I think IPOs have become an integral part of Chicago’s political ecosystem, alongside unions, socialist and abolitionist groups, etc. As such, I hope they continue to grow and spread across the city and serve as models to be copied/adapted in cities across the country. Much like socialists are invested in helping seed, nurture, and defend unions: we should take a similar approach to IPOs.
After decades of writing-off electoral politics due to the limits of our two-party system, Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign forced the US Left to finally engage in elections. IPOs represent a serious attempt to approach electoral politics from the bottom-up, and deserve to be supported and studied.