The nation’s largest firefighters union - one of the most reliable sources of campaign money for Democrats - announced Tuesday that it would quit donating to federal candidates this year because members of Congress aren’t sufficiently backing them in their fight against anti-union measures across the country.
International Association of Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger said there is a more urgent need to spend money defending the anti-union measures sweeping Republican-controlled statehouses.
“These state battles are devastating to our members’ future,” Mr. Schaitberger said. “You would think that we would have our friends in Congress stepping up and stepping out and leading and be willing to fight for us. But right now, we don’t feel they have our back.”
Mr. Schaitberger wants to end contributions to send a message that lawmakers shouldn’t take firefighters’ support for granted while lawmakers in dozens of states try to take away collective bargaining rights, reduce pension benefits and eliminate automatic union dues deductions in paychecks.
The firefighter’s union, with nearly 300,000 members, is among the most influential and biggest-spending lobbying groups on Capitol Hill. It is also among the most sought-after endorsements for both Democrats and Republicans.
During the 2010 mid-term elections, the union spent nearly $15 million on behalf of federal candidates, including nearly $2.4 million in direct contributions. Its political action committee, known as FIREPAC, was ranked 10th out of more than 7,100 such committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
This year, the firefighters’ union is spending millions to stop anti-union legislation in more than a half-dozen states. It is working in Ohio to pass a referendum that would overturn the measure eliminating collective bargaining rights for public employees. In Oklahoma, the union is contesting a measure that would ban binding arbitration for firefighters and paramedics. In New Hampshire, firefighters are fighting a bill to make public workers at-will employees. The AFL-CIO has committed to spending about $30 million on fighting such state efforts.
The union is encouraging about 3,500 locals to go along with its freeze on federal political spending. Mr. Schaitberger said he would reconsider his decision later this year if Congress becomes more responsive.
There is no indication of other unions following suit so far.
Ross Baker, a political-science professor at Rutgers University, said he would be surprised if other unions decided to withhold political donations. “Other than making a very momentary splash, I don’t think it’s going to embarrass members of Congress into being more supportive of unions,” he said.
While the move is unusual, it has some precedent. In 2009, the Sheet Metal Workers’ union stopped making political donations to members of Congress for about six months to show dissatisfaction with the debate over health care reform. The union was irked with lawmakers who considered taxing high-cost health insurance plans enjoyed by some union members. But once the issue was resolved, the union’s money to federal candidates began flowing again.
Overall, unions spent more than $200 million in the mid-term elections and about $400 million to help elect President Obama in 2008.
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