Firefighters’ Union May Join Labor Efforts in Congress Races

FireFighters Union Reverses Pledge to Withhold Campaign Cash
The International Association of Fire Fighters is now planning to give money to candidates running for Congress in the 2012 election, said Harold Schaitberger, the union’s president. “We will engage, yes, with our money, and resources and boots on the ground.” Photo:Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

The national firefighters’ union reversed course and is planning to support federal candidates, joining the U.S. labor movement in putting up cash to influence next year’s elections for Congress and the White House.

After closing a committee in April that funded federal candidates “to take a stand and make a statement,” the International Association of Fire Fighters has decided to aid candidates for Congress, President Harold Schaitberger said Aug. 31 in an interview with Bloomberg Government. The union’s political action committee said it spent $15 million in the 2010 election, mostly to back Democrats.

“We will be fully engaged in the political arena,” Schaitberger said in advance of U.S. Labor Day on Sept. 5. “We will engage, yes, with our money, and resources and boots on the ground.”

The firefighters are planning to rejoin labor groups such as the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, that say they will step up spending for next year’s campaigns. The AFL-CIO said this month that it will create a fundraising committee to spend money year-round in a drive to spur voting by both union and nonunion workers. The unions haven’t said how much they plan to spend.

U.S. labor leaders have said they were frustrated that President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress spent less time this year on issues important to unions while debating free-trade agreements, deficit reduction and ways to reduce regulation. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in June that Obama will have a “more challenging time” in his 2012 re-election campaign because of waning union enthusiasm.

Ohio Role Sought

The firefighters also are pushing congressional Democrats to join union members in seeking to repeal an Ohio law that cuts labor rights, said Jeff Zack, an assistant to Schaitberger. The union will only support Democrats who get involved in Ohio and on other issues identifed by unions, he said. The union’s executive board would make a decision on political action next year, Zack said.

Unions said they spent more than $200 million in 2010 to help Democrats run for Congress, about half the $400 million that went to aid Democrats and the Obama campaign in 2008. Spending went to political-action committees, television advertising, campaign mailings, phone banks and voter-turnout drives.

The firefighters’ union, representing about 300,000 U.S. workers, decided in April to spend only on state campaigns. Republican governors led by Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio were pushing legislation curtailing union rights and benefits as state budget deficits widened.

26 States

Schaitberger said the union is spending to push back against lawmakers in 26 states seeking to cut union rights. Since April, he said the union and its locals spent more than $3.4 million in states, including $1 million in Ohio where voters will decide whether to overturn a law limiting collective bargaining for public employees.

The firefighters’ political action committee ranked among the 10 biggest donors to members of Congress in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that monitors campaign spending. That year, when the committee spent $2.37 million on federal candidates, 82 percent of the money went to Democrats, according to the group.

The firefighters grew unhappy because Democratic leaders in Washington weren’t doing enough to defend unions, Schaitberger said. Members were disappointed Democrats sided with Republicans on extending President George W. Bush’s tax cuts and increasing the federal borrowing limit while failing to spend more to stimulate the economy, he said.

‘Great Signs’

Now, the union is seeing “great signs” of support from Democratic leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Representative George Miller, the top Democrat on the House committee that oversees labor issues, Schaitberger said. Both of the California lawmakers have long championed labor unions.

On July 26, Pelosi and Democratic leaders held a news conference with Schaitberger at their side to say Republicans are using efforts to reduce the budget deficit as a pretext to destroy union rights. The lawmakers also criticized Republican efforts to strip the powers of the National Labor Relations Board, which mediates employment disputes.

“We’re seeing some signs that our friends are getting it,” Schaitberger said. “We had seen a pattern of disappointment.”

Union spending on state campaigns will help congressional candidates and Obama in 2012, even if they money isn’t going directly to them, said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a Washington-based research group.

“They will be mobilizing voters who vote in all elections,” Malbin said in an interview. “Efforts that are highly emotional affect turnout, and Obama is going to have a hard time getting voters out to the polls. If unions get more people out, that helps people up and down the ticket.”

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