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.
Union officials maintain they are not ignoring what is going on in Congress, saying they are lobbying against the federal budget cuts being proposed by the GOP-controlled House.
Loveless said it was important for his union to remain involved in the federal budget battle because some of the proposed cuts would affect state budgets and force more reductions in the work force represented by the unions.
But labor lobbying in Washington this session is not as intense as it was in the previous two years, when organized labor played a major role in pushing through a number of Obama’s initiatives, including health care and the economic stimulus package.
Schaitberger said that with a divided government, it is unlikely that unions will be able to successfully promote an aggressive agenda. Instead, his union has been focused on smaller victories; for instance, during the recent budget debate, the House approved a Democratic amendment that restored funds for a program supporting laid-off firefighters.
Organized labor is also depending on the Democratic-controlled Senate to block measures that it views as particularly punitive to unions.
“Even if the House is passing anti-union legislation, it is not going anywhere now,” said Bret Caldwell, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The Teamsters, whose membership includes 250,000 public workers, has been heavily focused on the states because the legislative activities there are “at this point more time-sensitive,” Caldwell said.
But much of the effort has come from large union operations already based in the states rather from the Washington office, he added.
“It’s not like we have office staff going to Wisconsin,” Caldwell said.
Unions have traditionally maintained large lobbying and political operations in Washington as well as state offices around the country.
Last year organized labor disclosed spending $43.5 million on federal lobbying, with public employee unions alone shelling out $12.6 million on lobbying, according to a CQ Money Line analysis of filings with Congress.
Political action committees for all unions contributed $63.7 million to federal candidates in the past election cycle, with $59.4 million of that going to Democrats. Public employee unions contributed $17.5 million to candidates, with $16 million of that donated to Democrats.
Republicans have seized on the political contributions and large union influx into the states as evidence that Democrats are doing the bidding of what they describe as the “union bosses.”
“These union bosses have sent thousands of out-of-state union jack booted thugs into Wisconsin and Indiana to try and intimidate lawmakers and thwart the will of the people,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in a fundraising appeal sent out last week.
FreedomWorks, which is affiliated with the tea party, has been attempting to respond to the union efforts by dispatching its own people to a number of state capitals.
“We are trying to buck up Republicans who may be wavering,” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a union expert and historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggested unions may be taking a page from the tea party, whose original energy came from local and state participation.
The current fight is a high-stakes battle with long-term ramifications for organized labor, he said.
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.