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Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is the Director of the Center for Media and Democracy’s Real Economy Project and editor of the www.BanksterUSA.org site for bank busting activists.

April 28th, 2011 3:32 PM

Fire Fighters Turn off the Spigot

Remember when the fight broke out in Wisconsin over the right to collectively bargain and President Obama and a phalanx of national democratic leaders spread out across the country fighting for the rights of American workers? 

Right, we don't remember that either.

As unions battled for their very existence, the thunderous silence from Washington, D.C. did not go unnoticed by working families fighting for their livelihoods or by powerful political players. At least one organization has decided to hold a few of their former friends accountable. 

The International Association of Fire Fighters, announced yesterday it would no longer be giving money to federal candidates. Rather, the 300,000-member union said it would put its energy and resources into the fight at the state level over collective bargaining. 

Wake Up Call for Democrats

The announcement sent a shock wave through the Washington Democratic establishment, because in recent years the union has given much more to Democrats than Republicans. It donated $1.9 million to Democratic candidates in national elections during the 2010 campaign cycle and only $408,000 to Republicans.

But union president Harold A. Schaitberger said he was turning off the tap. He told the New York Times: "We're tired that our friends have not been willing to stand up and fight back on our behalf with the same ferocity, the same commitment that our enemies have in trying to destroy our members' rights," he said. "Quite frankly, our enemies are trying to kill us as a labor movement and union trying to represent workers and help the middle class."

"Not only are extremist Republicans trying to destroy us -- too few Democrats are standing up and fighting for us," the union said in its announcement.

Take No Prisoners

The union's endorsement has been prized by politicians across the political spectrum since the September 11, 2001 attacks elevated the heroic efforts of fire fighters in the public eye. In an effort to get federal legislation passed that that would require states to grant public-safety employees, including police, firefighters and EMTs, the right to collectively bargain, the union has stepped up its federal spending and has embraced a series of Democratic presidential candidates including Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama.

But their agenda in Congress has stalled. Even when Democrats controlled both houses, the fire fighters could not get their priority bill pass the Senate's cloture rules in the final days of the 2010 lame-duck session.

While the fire fighters applauded the courage of the "Wisconsin 14," the 14 State Senators who fled the state to block a vote on Governor Scott Walker's collective bargaining bill, they are much less enthused by their friends at the federal level.

In an interview with MSNBC's Ed Shultz, Schaitberger said that Democrats at the federal level need to stand up and fight. "They need to have a collective voice, they need to do what the opposition has done. The opposition has been very focused, organized, orchestrated. Their message is very clear. They have their sights on the attack and they are willing to take no prisoners. We need our Democratic friends in Congress to have a unified voice, step up and fight back with us," said Schaitberger.

"Not Politics as Usual Anymore"

Here in Wisconsin where the fightback began, Joe Conway, the head of IAFF Local 311 applauded  Schaitberger's "bold move."  "This is not politics as usual anymore.  We are under attack in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, New Hampshire, Florida. If unions don't survive, there won't be any money for any candidate in the future."

Conway said the union spent $50,000 in independent expenditures in the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court race and is now gearing up for the fight when one third of the Wisconsin State Senate is thrown into recall races over the summer. This decision at the national level would mean "more money for these local races in Wisconsin."

"The Republicans have done a great job convincing people that whatever economic problems they are having in their life, they can blame on public unions," says Conway. "But the truth is - and every study shows this -- that unions bring up everyone's wages, they improve everyone's economic status. We have to win all of these state fights, not just for ourselves but for everyone."

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