By Kevin Bogardus - 03/19/14 06:00 AM EDT
An angry and deflated union base is adding to the midterm woes for congressional Democrats.
Parts of the labor coalition are fed up with the White House over ObamaCare and the delayed approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and they are making clear that they are reluctant to help Democrats in their push to save their Senate majority.
Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said his members have been frustrated with Democrats for some time.
“I certainly think that it’s going to affect turnout. … You have people that are disillusioned and angry; they either vote a different way or they don’t vote at all,” O’Sullivan told The Hill. “You can sense my temper getting up. Our members are no different than I am. They’re not happy. Is that going to have an impact? I would say, bet your ass it’s going to.”
Last week, O’Sullivan and other building trade union leaders joined with the American Petroleum Institute to blast the Obama administration for stalling on the approval of the Keystone pipeline. Some in labor anticipate the creation of new jobs for their members in building the pipeline and want action now.
“I look at it through our members’ eyes. And our members are angry. They’re disillusioned. They’re disappointed. … Keystone is certainly one of those issues on why they have those reactions,” O’Sullivan said. “The State Department is going to keep doing assessments until they get the answer that they seem to be looking for.”
Other union leaders plan to withhold resources from Democrats caught in competitive Senate races, saying they want hold their allies accountable for past actions.
In a speech Monday to his union’s legislative conference, Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), said Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) would not be receiving IAFF support in their reelection races this year.
The firefighters are angry about a December 2010 Senate vote on legislation that would have expanded collective bargaining rights for firefighters and police officers. The bill failed to move forward in a 55-43 vote, with Hagan and Warner joining the Republicans in voting against cloture.
Calling Hagan “one of our great double-crossers,” Schaitberger said, “she now has a tough reelection, and I have made her a promise, and one I plan to keep.”
“That is she won’t get one damn dime from this union. She won’t get one ounce of support,” said Schaitberger, who was then drowned out by applause from the crowd.
Sadie Weiner, a Hagan campaign spokeswoman, said the senator respects firefighters and has supported federal grants for fire departments.
“She is honored to have the backing of North Carolina AFL-CIO and working families across the state who are strong supporters,” Weiner said.
In his speech, Schaitberger said he met with Warner last week and “told him in no uncertain terms that he hadn’t earned our support going forward in his reelection bid this year.”
“He had lost our respect and that our silence in his effort to return to the Senate chamber this fall would be deafening. He was not going to have the IAFF by his side again,” the union chief said.
David Turner, a Warner campaign spokesman, said the senator “has all the respect in the world for firefighters, Harold Schaitberger and the IAFF.”
Despite the anger, several union officials told The Hill that they would work to keep the Senate in the Democrats’ hands.
Labor is caught in a familiar conundrum: unhappy with Democrats but fearing the wrath of Republicans if they gain power.
In an interview with The Hill, Schaitberger said his union wants to maintain “a worker-friendly, middle-class-friendly Democratic majority in the Senate.”
Still, it’s not an outcome that unions are overjoyed about.
“Given the Republican leadership and where they stand, we do want to keep a Senate Democratic majority. Are we happy with what has come out of Congress on both sides? No. No, we’re not, nor should we be,” O’Sullivan said.
The Affordable Care Act has caused intense friction between labor and the White House. Union leaders say the law could hurt their members’ health plans and have grown increasingly vocal in their criticism.
A research document by Unite Here, posted online by RalstonReports.com this month, argued the healthcare law will worsen income inequality by threatening the middle class with “higher premiums, loss of hours, and a shift to part-time work and less comprehensive coverage.”
Further, in a letter to labor leaders, D. Taylor, president of the hospitality workers’ union, said to use the document and “ask those seeking our money and votes what they plan to do to ensure we can keep the healthcare we have.”
Adding to worries for Democrats, unions say they are focusing much of their attention this year on state rather than federal races.
Several in labor see a chance to oust some of unions’ biggest antagonists, including Republican Govs. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, John Kasich in Ohio, Paul LePage in Maine, Rick Scott in Florida and Rick Snyder in Michigan.
Brian Weeks, political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the union would campaign for a Democratic Senate but the “priority is at the state level.”
“There are 36 governors’ races,” Weeks said. “Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania are our highest-priority races.”
Unions have long held sway with Democrats, helping to turn out the vote in battleground states for President Obama’s 2012 reelection bid.
Labor union PACs and officials have given almost $39 million to candidates and political groups so far this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The bulk of those funds have gone to Democrats and liberal groups, the group found.
Unions and Democrats are walking in lockstep on other Democratic priorities, including raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
Americans United for Change, which has received labor funding, announced a bus tour on Tuesday in support of a wage increase. The tour is expected to include appearances by Democratic Senate candidates, administration officials and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
Unions have hardly been ignored under the current administration, and they have scored victories recently when Obama extended overtime pay, expanded protections for homecare workers and filled out the National Labor Relations Board.
Other unions have stood firmly behind ObamaCare, with the Service Employees International Union working to boost enrollment.
Still, dissatisfaction with Democrats remains. Labor saw no action on the Employee Free Choice Act early on in Obama’s first term, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate. They have also griped about what they say is a lack of attention to their concerns about the healthcare law.
“There have been so many points and opportunities that Congress and the White House have had to stand with their friends, us, but also an opportunity to really change the dynamic of workers’ rights. But when those opportunities present themselves, they just seem to slip by,” Schaitberger said.