Firefighters union resumes federal contributions

AP News
Posted: Dec 19, 2011 3:21 PM
Firefighters union resumes federal contributions

The International Association of Firefighters union said Monday it would resume making federal campaign contributions after seeing lawmakers commit new resources to public safety and speak out more forcefully against anti-union measures in Ohio, Wisconsin and other states.

The announcement should come as welcome news to Democrats, who will need strong union support if they want to hold on to their majority in the Senate and have a chance at retaking the House.

The firefighters union _ a reliable supporter of mostly Democratic candidates _ made a splash in April when it stopped donating cash to congressional campaigns and redirected resources to state fights. At the time, union officials said lawmakers were taking firefighters' support for granted.

"Our frustration was a lack of voice on the battles that we're facing out across the states," union president Harold Schaitberger said in an interview. "We wanted them to at least step up, use their political standing and ability to help us fight back."

Schaitberger praised Democratic House and Senate lawmakers for spending time and money to help overturn an Ohio law last month that restricted collective bargaining rights for public employees. Democratic leaders in the House are also helping with union efforts to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who pushed his own measure limiting union rights.

On the federal agenda, Schaitberger said he was pleased that part of the massive spending bill Congress passed over the weekend that includes $730 million in grants for local fire departments. The money will translate into jobs for about 7,000 firefighters and paramedics who were laid off or waiting to fill posts that were vacant due to budget cuts.

The 300,000-member union is an influential force in politics. Candidates seek out the union's valuable endorsement so they can use it in campaign ads and hold press events where they are flanked by uniformed firefighters.

The union spent nearly $15 million on behalf of federal candidates in 2010, including nearly $2.4 million in direct contributions. Its political action committee, known as FIREPAC, was ranked 10th out of more than 7,100 such groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

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Halting federal contributions for nine months allowed the union to target more resources to the states, where a number of state legislatures moved to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees. Many GOP officials _ and even some Democrats _ blamed generous wage and pension benefits in union contracts for creating budget shortfalls.

The move to cut off federal contributions apparently got the attention of congressional leaders. Soon after that, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi organized a rally against the state actions and encouraged Democrats to go out into their districts and speak out against measures limiting union rights.

Schaitberger said contributions would flow again, but warned that it wouldn't be "business as usual." He said the union would hold lawmakers accountable and make sure that support is earned.