Police, firefighter unions see chance to expand collective bargaining rights

Firefighter and police lobbyists view this Congress as the best chance in years to expand collective bargaining rights for public safety workers.

On Wednesday, a House Education and Labor Committee subpanel held a hearing on legislation that would direct federal authorities to review state laws and issue regulations regarding collective bargaining rights for public safety officers.

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But the bill would have to be squeezed in an already crowded legislative calendar before the midterm elections, competing with healthcare reform and new regulations for Wall Street.

That has public safety worker unions racing to make their case on Capitol Hill.

“We aren’t worried about the votes. We are worried about the time,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police. “We know that they are going to take their recesses and we are running out of days.”

The bill could also be this Congress’s best shot for major labor law reform as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), also known as card-check legislation and the labor movement’s No. 1 legislative priority, stalled in the Senate.

The public safety worker bill has bipartisan support, with heavy Democratic backing in both chambers, five Senate Republican supporters — including Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) — and approximately 40 House Republican co-sponsors.

“This is probably the most favorable climate we have seen overall since the beginning effort,” Pasco said.

“For the first time in eight years, we have a president who has indicated he is going to sign it. We have leadership in both houses who have committed to put it on the floor. And we have the votes to pass it,” said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, an AFL-CIO member.

Democrats are projected to experience big losses in November, and if that happens, union officials fear there might not be enough votes to pass the bill in the next Congress.

In 2007, the bill passed the House with more than 300 votes and was in a strong position to clear the Senate. But President George W. Bush issued a veto threat and the Senate bill’s lead Democratic sponsor, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), fell ill. The legislation then became overrun with amendments and subsequently fizzled on the Senate floor.

This Congress, Capitol Hill aides expressed enthusiasm for the legislation but would not commit to a timeline for the bill that would see it passed before the year is out.

Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the House Education and Labor Committee, said he expects the panel will mark it up soon. In addition, the bill has the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“Sen. Reid has been a longtime supporter of this bipartisan legislation,” said Regan Lachapelle, a Reid spokeswoman. “We remain hopeful that we will consider the legislation on the Senate floor in the near future.”

Firefighter and police unions have been battling for the bill since it was first introduced in the mid-1990s. They have been pushing for the legislation because they believe only 25 states offer adequate protections for public safety employees’ collective bargaining rights.

“This bill mandates a process. It does not mandate an outcome,” Schaitberger said. “What we are saying is let’s afford collective bargaining rights to the last group of people who haven’t been afforded it: public safety employees.”

Some municipalities oppose the bill, however, believing it could lead to protracted contract negotiations with unionized firefighters and policemen, straining budgets already under severe stress from the poor economy. Conservatives see it as undermining state laws. At the hearing Wednesday, Doug Stafford, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, blasted the bill, saying it would lead to “unfunded mandates” and “override state laws.”

Further, not all Republicans are on board with the bill.

“Washington will make the decision of whether these laws pass muster. And in imposing such mandates, Congress will expand the scope of a state’s obligations, liabilities and costs,” Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a senior committee member, said at the hearing. “Put more simply, we are empowering

Washington to substitute its judgment for that of reasoned decisions by state legislatures, courts and agencies.”

But some of the business groups that have shut down progress on labor’s goal of passing card-check legislation this Congress are taking a pass on the bill.

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For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce does not hold a position on the bill and does not plan to lobby against it, according to Randy Johnson, the Chamber’s senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits.

Considering this bill is the most pressing priority for firefighters and police unions, lawmakers can expect to be lobbied hard on the bill.

“We are going to absolutely hold members accountable for their votes on this issue,” Pasco said.