Labor union activists held a rally in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, but labor leaders say they are increasingly redirecting resources to several state legislatures that are considering bills that would curtail bargaining rights of unions.
Labor unions in the past two years have helped muscle President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda through Congress, but they are now redeploying their forces to a handful of battleground states to fend off a flurry of hostile bills.
This shift of focus, union officials say, reflects the urgency of the situation outside of Washington, D.C., as well as a recognition of the limited role that organized labor can play in pushing its agenda through a politically divided Congress.
“We are triaging the battle and making sure we are shifting resources,” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters. “We have got to be nimble. We have pivoted away from a central federal effort and are putting considerable resources into the field. That’s where the threats are.”
The firefighters, along with most of the other large unions, have been a visible presence in a number of Midwestern states, particularly Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker is pushing legislation to limit collective bargaining for public employee unions.
While Walker has exempted firefighters and police officers from the legislation, Schaitberger still sees the measure as a threat to the union movement. He has twice been to Madison, the state capital, to address the protesters.
Last week the executive board of the firefighters union approved spending millions of dollars on efforts in the states, including paid media. GOP governors and legislatures in a number of other states, including Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and New Jersey are also considering legislation to limit union benefits and bargaining rights.
Staffers from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have also been dispatched to key states where legislative battles are brewing.
“There has been a reallocation of resources for dealing with these fights at the state level,” said Charles Loveless, legislative director for AFSCME. There has been an “unprecedented level of coordination” among the unions on how to respond to the challenges in the states, he said. The AFL-CIO has taken the lead in overseeing joint efforts, under the direction of Naomi Walker, director of state government relations for the union.
AFL-CIO officials did not respond to inquiries about how the group was balancing its federal and state lobbying. A spokesman said Bill Samuel, AFL-CIO’s legislative director, has been “pretty slammed.”
A number of unions, including the Service Employees International Union, which represents health care workers, have teamed up with other traditional liberal allies such as MoveOn.org to stage rallies in all 50 states.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.