Unions' dirty politics

March 11, 2004|By Linda Chavez

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's new campaign ads, which feature fleeting images of firefighters removing the remains of victims from the attack on the World Trade Center, have ignited a firestorm of criticism from the union representing New York firefighters.

The president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Harold Schaitberger, called the ads "disgraceful" and "disgusting," while the union's executive board passed a resolution accusing the president of "trading on the heroism of those 343 FDNY members who fell during the terrorist attacks ... to win sympathy for his campaign."

The union's complaints should come as no surprise since the IAFF was an early supporter of Sen. John Kerry; in fact, it was the only union to endorse Mr. Kerry before the New Hampshire primary. Less well-known, however, is the IAFF's own exploitation of those fallen heroes of Sept. 11 to advance the cause of forced unionism for all public safety workers.

Two days after the terrorists struck, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee -- chaired at the time by Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy -- passed the IAFF's top legislative priority, the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act. A few nights later, Mr. Kennedy tried to sneak the bill through the full Senate on "unanimous consent," a maneuver more appropriate for noncontroversial items such as National Dairy Week.

Despite its innocuous-sounding title, the bill was a huge power grab by public employee unions to force individual police and firefighters to accept union representation regardless of whether they want it. The legislation not only would have forced those 18 states that do not have collective-bargaining laws for public safety workers to recognize unions as exclusive bargaining agents for police and firefighters, it also would have pre-empted state collective-bargaining laws if they were more restrictive than the federal legislation.

The bill even would have jeopardized community volunteer fire departments. According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, the largest advocacy group for volunteer firefighters, volunteers make up an estimated 75 percent of all firefighters in the United States, and about half of these are career firefighters who volunteer their services in the communities in which they live.

But the IAFF constitution specifically forbids its members from "acquiring or maintaining membership ... in volunteer fire departments or associations," and the union can fine, suspend or expel members who violate this provision. By forcing more local governments into collective-bargaining agreements with the IAFF, the pool of trained volunteers for smaller communities would have shrunk dramatically.

Thankfully, the IAFF-backed bill did not pass -- it was opposed by the National Governors Association, the Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities, among other organizations -- but it has been reintroduced in the 108th Congress and remains the top priority for the union.

The IAFF's attack on the Bush campaign ads is just the first salvo in what promises to be a powerful guerrilla war waged by unions against President Bush and other Republican candidates this election. Unions will pump in hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several months to defeat Republicans, the overwhelming majority of it in unreported expenditures.

Although the IAFF and other unions must report direct contributions to candidates made through their political action committees, PAC donations represent only a small fraction of union political spending. In 2000, for example, unions donated $90.1 million directly to Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In addition, unions committed $46 million for a grass-roots mobilization effort in 35 congressional districts in 15 states.

The National Education Association, America's largest union, with 2.7 million members, employs more than 1,800 political operatives, known as UniServ staff. According to the Landmark Legal Foundation, which has filed complaints with the IRS alleging the NEA failed to properly report its political spending, the NEA spends $47 million a year and its state affiliates another $43 million underwriting UniServ.

If history is any guide, unions will spend $800 million or more to defeat President Bush and other Republicans this election cycle, almost all of it hidden from public scrutiny and taken from involuntary union dues. So the next time a union official accuses President Bush of playing politics with fallen heroes, remember the unions are champions at that game.

Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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