Obama’s union allies work to pull negotiations over ‘fiscal cliff’ to the left

President Obama’s allies in the labor movement are targeting centrists in both parties in an attempt to pull the “fiscal cliff” talks to the left.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the National Education Association (NEA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) will launch a series of radio and television ads on Tuesday that urges lawmakers to let the Bush tax rates for the wealthy expire while preserving entitlement benefits. 


Mary Kusler, NEA’s director of government relations, said the ads will target House Republicans who appear open to raising tax revenue and Senate Democrats who have appeared willing to slash programs like Medicare and Social Security. 

Most observers in Washington expect a deal on the “fiscal cliff” to require compromise from both sides, but the messaging blitz puts the onus on Republicans to give ground on their signature issues of taxes.

“We are focused on House Republicans, who, despite the rhetoric from their leadership, have said they are willing to consider revenue as part of a final deal,” Kusler said.

The ads on the fiscal cliff — a term that refers to the slew of cuts and tax increases that will go into effect early next year — will also appear in the home states of some Senate Democrats. 

“We recognize that the most fiscally conservative Senate Democrats are going to be coming under intense pressure,” Kusler said. “We want to take this opportunity to buck them up and remind that they have been seen as leaders on middle-class issues and to keep working families, seniors and students front and center in their minds when they are doing their decisionmaking.” 

The three unions said the six-figure ad campaign would be aimed at senators in Colorado, Missouri and Virginia, as well as key congressional districts in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Alaska.

Kusler asserted that there is a sizable number of House Republicans open to raising taxes. She cited a November 2011 letter sent to the failed “supercommittee” that was signed by a bipartisan group of 100 lawmakers in the House. That document stated that “all options for mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues must be on the table” in fiscal talks.

The letter provides a framework for labor on whom to lobby in the House GOP conference.

“In a lot of these cases, these members are our friends who we have had long working relationships with. But we also recognize this is a true period of persuasion and time for them to place issues before party politics,” Kusler said. 

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerAre maskless House members scofflaws? Israel, Democrats and the problem of the Middle East Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists MORE (R-Ohio) has said Republicans could accept new tax revenues under certain conditions — like reforming entitlement programs — but has vowed to oppose higher tax rates.

Unions spent significant resources helping Obama hold the White House and are now pushing the president to stick with his promise to only extend the Bush-era tax rates on income below $250,000 per year.

“The president has been steadfast and determined on this question of separating taxes for the middle class and the wealthiest 2 percent,” said Peter Colavito, SEIU’s director of government relations. “I think the president will not give in on that question. We have his back on that question. I think the Democratic congressional leadership has his back on that question.” 

Unions grew restless last summer as reports emerged of a grand bargain between Obama and BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerAre maskless House members scofflaws? Israel, Democrats and the problem of the Middle East Joe Crowley to register as lobbyist for recording artists MORE that included changes to entitlement programs. This time around, they are particularly concerned about Medicare and Medicaid cuts that could be made to advance a deal on Capitol Hill, affecting labor’s members in the healthcare sector as well as retirees.

“You can’t cause hundreds of thousands of people in the healthcare industry to lose their jobs. It’s bad for the economy. It’s bad for the country,” Colavito said.

Others in labor agreed.

“We cannot cut our way to job creation, balance the budget at the expense of the middle class and destroy programs that provide a measure of economic security for millions of Americans,” said Chuck Loveless, AFSCME’s federal government affairs director, in a statement. 

Budget sequestration — the other half of the fiscal cliff — has also jolted labor into action. Unions are concerned about the domestic half of the $110 billion cut set for 2013 and are pressing Congress to stop it.

Next year under the sequester, NEA says that federal education programs would be trimmed by $4.8 billion, leading to nearly 80,000 lost education jobs.

This week’s ad campaign won’t be the last word from unions as lawmakers get down to brass tacks after the Thanksgiving recess.

The AFL-CIO is organizing fly-in visits to Washington for its members at the end of November to lobby lawmakers on the fiscal cliff, according to an official with the labor federation.

“This is just our initial step. As the debate continues, I’m sure we will continue to press the debate publicly, with more ads coming in December,” Kusler said.