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.
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.
“Clearly this is existential,” Lichtenstein said. “This is pretty major blow at the unions in their traditional heartland.”