Firefighters' union money goes local
By: Jeanne Cummings April 26, 2011
As newly elected Republican state legislatures aggressively push a slew of anti-union measures, the International Association of Fire Fighters is freezing its federal political spending and shifting all resources toward its beleaguered state and local colleagues.
“With the survival of our union and the ability to preserve and protect the rights, wages, and benefits our members deserve in jeopardy in the states, we have re-evaluated how to get the best results from our political dollars,” IAFF President HaJrold A. Schaitberger said Tuesday in an email blast to members that was obtained by POLITICO.
The firefighters’ decision could have real consequences.
The union spent nearly $15 million in the 2010 midterms on behalf of federal candidates, both Democrats and Republicans. Its political action committee is ranked among the top 10 largest and the union was a major donor to some of the independent groups that waged an 11th hour effort to protect Democrats from attacks from business-backed groups.
The PAC donated more than $4 million in the 2010 midterms and a few checks were issued earlier this year.
“But until we see our friends in Congress be as committed to standing and fighting with us with the same level of intensity and ferocity as our enemies are trying to kill us, I’m turning the spigot off,” Schaitberger said in an interview.
Finally, federal candidates – including President Barack Obama — will have to hit the campaign trail without the coveted visual image of local firefighter supporters clad in the union’s iconic black and gold T-shirts.
It was an image that became a mainstay of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s 2004 primary bid after virtually all of the other major labor unions flocked to the upstart and unsuccessful campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
The move by the union is just the latest – and most dramatic – adjustment labor leaders are scrambling to make after Republicans across the nation in January tried to quickly push through new laws that would weaken the movement and its political influence.
In Wisconsin and Ohio, new laws would undermine the collective bargaining rights of most or all public employees. In Missouri, bills have been introduced to loosen wage and child labor laws. In Indiana, lawmakers sought to essentially ban public employee unions by becoming a right-to-work state. In Alabama, lawmakers have eliminated automatic union dues deductions from workers’ paychecks.
The Service Employees International Union, one of the largest in the country, recently announced that it is broadening its political operation to attempt to build a nationwide pro-labor grassroots constituency that includes union members and non-union supporters.
In an interview with POLITICO, however, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said the union would not reduce its role in federal races. SEIU reported spending $85 million in the 2008 presidential and was one of Obama’s most prominent backers.
Josh Goldstein, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, said its executive committee is in discussions about how to adjust to the new, more hostile terrain.
While no specifics have been agreed on yet, Goldstein said the consensus is that the labor umbrella organization’s 2012 political operation will be a “far broader and deeper program then ever before.” Among the strategic shifts on the table are engaging in more local and state races and expanding member-on-member communications to a year-round operation.
Like the firefighters, Goldstein said the AFL-CIO’s vast treasury will be allocated “less on the political party structure and more on our structure.”
To be sure, there will be residual benefits to federal candidates from labor’s intensified efforts, and the national firefighters union’s decision won’t preclude local chapters from engaging in federal races either through donations or voter turnout operations.
Union members vote disproportionately for Democrats. So, while a
candidate or party committee may not receive a direct donation, they are likely to benefit from an uptick in political participation by labor supporters motivated by local or state issues.
In Ohio, union members are collecting signatures to hold a referendum that would overturn a new law that undercuts the collective bargaining rights of firefighters, police and all other public employees. In Wisconsin, Democrats are collecting signatures to recall members of the state legislature who voted to back an anti-organizing law that is being challenged in court.
Those are the fights that Schaitberger and his executive board decided in a conference call last Wednesday pose a more serious and immediate threat to the well-being of their union and that’s why they are moving their money to fight them.
“It’s time to send a clear message to all politicians at every level that the support of this IAFF is not automatic. It must be earned,” he said in the memo to members.
“Our support comes with consequences for those who are working to kill this union and we will hold accountable those supposed friends who don’t stand up for us,” he added.
According to Schaitberger, the money that would have been donated to federal candidates will now be used to underwrite the recall and referendum efforts and a legal fight against the new Alabama anti-deduction law, which has become a model for a similar bill in Florida. “We’ll spend as much on the Ohio referendum as we would in a presidential election,” he said.
The change in strategy also is driven by the environment in Washington. Any labor legislation on Capitol Hill – whether harmful or helpful – doesn’t have much chance of passing given that Republicans control the House and Democrats are running the Senate. In addition, labor leaders broadly have expressed disappointment at the compromises on taxes and trade embraced by the Obama Administration and Congress.
The final straw, however, was the failure of federal labor allies to speak out against the actions in their home states.
“They have enormous influence in each of their states. They may not literally be able to vote on a measure in a statehouse, but they certainly could be standing up and putting pressure on those in the statehouses,” he said. “Where is the outrage? Where are our friends?”
Forgive me if I don't take the union chiefs at their word. They may not pay as much but they will buy the Democrats. And they may not have the cash but they have manpower. Plus the loss of automatic deductions is death for them. They know the members can easily withhold money if the union leadership goes nuts...the leadership of the unions is often leftist but the membership is more conservative