Thursday, May 5, 2011

Unions refocus political activity

Thursday, May 5, 2011

WASHINGTON ? Feeling under siege in more than a dozen states, some of the nation's largest labor groups are focusing their political activity to challenge state laws that sharply curb union rights or to oust the legislators who crafted them.

  • Union members rally last April at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing, protesting GOP Gov. Rick Snyder's proposed cuts.

    By Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

    Union members rally last April at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing, protesting GOP Gov. Rick Snyder's proposed cuts.

By Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Union members rally last April at the Michigan Capitol in Lansing, protesting GOP Gov. Rick Snyder's proposed cuts.

That could hurt congressional Democrats who rely heavily on organized labor for campaign money and get-out-the vote efforts. Democrats received 93% of the money union-affiliated political action committees donated to federal candidates in last year's midterm elections, according to data collected by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The union counterattacks in states will stretch their budgets, but national labor leaders say they are unlikely to follow the lead of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which announced last week that it would cut off donations in next year's presidential and congressional elections and redirect its money to state fights.

"We can multitask," said Karen White, political director of the 3.2-million-member National Education Association, whose members have staged rallies from Idaho to Tennessee this year to protest plans to limit teachers' collective-bargaining powers. "We will also be engaged in federal elections."

Larry Scanlon, political director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said, "People have woken up to the fact that they have to be more aggressive in electoral politics in the states."

Scanlon's union, whose members range from prison guards to sanitation workers, recently sent $1 million to Ohio to help collect signatures to put a measure on the ballot that would overturn a new state law that dramatically curbs the collective-bargaining rights of the state's 350,000 public workers.

Scanlon said his union will donate at a "lower and slower" rate to congressional incumbents. Even so, the 1.6 million-member union will contribute substantially to federal contests in 2012 and is likely to exceed the $90 million it spent to influence 2010 races, he said.

The Service Employees International Union also said it was not retreating from its commitment to back federal candidates, even as it engages in state battles.

"SEIU members and staff are deeply committed to working on behalf of pro-working family candidates in races from the state house to the White House during the 2012 election cycle," Brandon Davis, the union's national political director, said in an e-mail.

In one sign of its commitment to federal races, the 2.2 million-member SEIU said it will provide seed money to start new outside group that will tap unlimited donations to help Obama and congressional Democrats next year.

The pitched fights over workers' rights come after Republicans made historic gains in states in November.

GOP lawmakers now control both chambers of state legislatures in 26 states, up from 14 before Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans also hold 29 governors' seats.

Republican political leaders say the measures to curtail collective bargaining are needed to trim government spending as states are face record budget deficits. In Michigan, "we've lost nearly 1 million jobs in the last decade," state senator Phil Pavlov said.

The Republican authored a new law that gives emergency managers appointed to run financially troubled cities and schools districts in Michigan the right to change or toss out union contracts. "There's a resetting of government costs that needs to take place," he said.

Labor leaders say the plans seek to dilute unions' political clout and unfairly scapegoat workers for budget shortfalls they did not cause. "It's a big threat to the American middle class," said White of the National Education Association.

Measures restricting collective bargaining have passed in at least 10 states and legislative battles continue to rage in several others, including Tennessee and New Hampshire, where lawmakers have passed a measure that would bar unions from requiring non-members to pay a share of bargaining and administrative costs. Democratic Gov. John Lynch has promised to veto the bill.

Not all efforts to curb union power come from state Republicans. Last week, the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts House of Representatives approved a bill that would let cities and towns set health care premiums and co-payments for municipal employees to rein in soaring medical costs.

Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said Democrats in Washington are not doing enough to protect workers and that contributed to the union's decision to indefinitely freeze its federal political donations and redirect the money to state fights. In 2010, the union spent nearly $15 million in federal elections.

"We are not getting out of the political arena," Schaitberger said, "but we are telling them that until we see a sea change in their performance, we are turning the spigot off."

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