Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama pats AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on the back before speaking at the AFL-CIO Executive Council Meeting in Washington last August. Trumka said recently that unions need to start demanding accountability from their allies.
President Obama pats AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on the back before speaking at the AFL-CIO Executive Council Meeting in Washington last August. Trumka said recently that unions need to start demanding accountability from their allies. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
There's new tension in the marriage of organized labor and the Democratic Party.
Unions were already angry that Democrats in Congress haven't done more for them. And now, as Republican-controlled state legislatures take aim at labor's bargaining and political power, some union leaders say national Democrats aren't showing enough solidarity.
'Weak Friends, Or Worse'
In a little publicized but bluntly phrased speech last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave some union lawyers a dire prediction of what's ahead for organized labor.
He said the Republican assaults on unions amount to "true existential challenges," and that labor needs to demand accountability from its allies, including "Democrats who have been weak friends, or worse."
The AFL-CIO itself isn't ready to take any dramatic steps, but one public employees union is.
Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, says his union is going to stop giving contributions to federal candidates and federal party committees "for an indefinite period of time."
He says national Democrats don't stand up against the Republicans' anti-union offensive. "It's orchestrated, it's centralized, it's very disciplined," he says.
Now, Schaitberger says, the firefighters union will direct its money and energy to the states, "where we are engaged in survival."
Taking A Stand
If other unions were to follow the firefighters, congressional Democrats would be in a tough spot.
In 2010, unions gave $65 million to congressional candidates and party committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that money, 94 percent went to Democrats.
This year, though, Republicans in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio have passed laws undercutting union bargaining power. A database at the National Council of State Legislatures lists more than 200 similar bills proposed by Republicans in 35 states.
Labor fights back with protests and ads. A TV spot by the firefighters union in Oklahoma says: "We're there when you need us. Now we need you. Tell politicians to do what's right."
So far, the International Association of Fire Fighters is alone in shutting out the national Democrats. But other unions share the deep frustration.
"You know, once in a while, you have to take a clear stand," says Matt McKinnon, political director for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. He says members of his union are still angry that Democrats didn't pass a stronger health care bill.
But "whether we punish all Democrats over that," he says, "I don't think so."
Nowhere Else To Go?
For their part, the Democratic Party and its candidates may seem to look at unions as having bottomless pockets. But Democratic fundraiser Michael Fraioli says that's just not true.
"They have a lot of money," he says. "But as much as they have, they still have to target it."
Last year, Republican challengers took out half of Fraioli's clients in the House. But now, when asked if unions will close their checkbooks to Democrats, Fraioli says no. He predicts that the rift will heal as the 2012 races heat up.
In fact, the biggest union of all — the National Education Association — is already moving toward endorsing President Obama. And Fraioli is not the only boycott skeptic.
"Sometimes, individual unions do follow through with those threats," says Taylor Dark, a political scientist at California State University in Los Angeles. But, he says, the alienated unions usually don't stay away too long.
"Because in our two-party system, they really don't have anywhere else to go."