GOP Candidates, Labor Unions Make Strange Bedfellows

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By Tyrone Richardson

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s (R-Pa.) bid to continue representing a suburban area just outside Philadelphia features a rarity among Republicans: He’s the only House GOP lawmaker in the Keystone State to be endorsed by the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

The first-term lawmaker is among a small group of Republican candidates who are getting union backing in the run-up to the November elections.

“Union members understand their responsibilities as citizens and voters. Their unions take great care to evaluate the positions of political candidates based on the issues that affect working people in their everyday lives,” Rick Bloomingdale, president of Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO, said when the labor organization announced it was backing Fitzpatrick. “We proudly endorse candidates that support working people’s rights to join a union, earn a living wage and retire with dignity.”

Fitzpatrick—the Teamsters and UNITE HERE have also chipped in to his campaign—joins a cherry-picked list of sitting House Republicans to garner union dollars this midterm. Those candidates, some in tight races in districts with high union density or who sit on key committees, vote in line with labor’s wishes on at least some critical job issues like infrastructure and trade.

Supporting Republicans isn’t necessarily new for organized labor, but union moves to back some Republicans this time comes during a crucial battle for control of Congress in which every seat seems pivotal. Democratic control is largely seen as key to moving labor groups’ legislative priorities, even if some GOP lawmakers may be sympathetic to unions.

Local union support for GOP candidates also bucks some national labor leaders who have told Bloomberg Law that they’re putting a majority of their political dollars to work for Democratic candidates.

“The Republican party has openly declared its desire to greatly weaken if not eliminate unions in the U.S. workplace,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor professor at Cornell University, told Bloomberg Law. “Democrats may not always follow through or have the courage of their convictions, but they are better than Republicans and that is why labor doesn’t hold their feet to the fire.”

The labor-Republican alliance often comes in areas with strong union ties, like Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Illinois. Building trades unions also tend to lean more conservative than other labor groups. They’ve made a connection of sorts with the White House that traces back to President Donald Trump’s work in the construction industry .

Fitzpatrick has a 47 percent voting score from the national AFL-CIO on key issues for the union, like how lawmakers vote on Republican tax bill and efforts to gut Obamacare and scrap prevailing wage laws. New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, who’s also seeing some union support, has a 61 percent lifetime score. Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.), who has been endorsed by the New York AFL-CIO, has a 55 percent lifetime score.

Republican Support Gets Selective

Unions have a laundry list of demands for lawmakers, including raising the nation’s minimum wage and protecting the Davis-Bacon Act, which imposes a “prevailing wage” on federal construction projects. They also want Congress to reel in a National Labor Relations Board that has overturned some Obama-era rulings and force more worker protections in a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement.

Organized labor’s support for Republicans has targeted those on House committees tasked with infrastructure and trade oversight, as well as those who align with them on wage issues.

That includes House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure member Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), and Smith, who has opposed amendments to appropriations bills that would repeal the Davis-Bacon Act.

Labor unions have shifted their political support in recent years, Michael Merrill, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, told Bloomberg Law.

“The labor movement tilted toward the Democrats under FDR, was neutral in the 70s with McGovern and Carter, then doubled down under Reagan, going all-in for Mondale in 1984,” he said. “The Clinton years were more arms length, with prominent calls for a labor party. The AFL-CIO went with Obama, but after he failed to deliver on the Free Choice Act, Trumka announced a return to the older ‘non-partisan’ tradition.”

Richard Trumka is the President of the national AFL-CIO, an umbrella group of labor organizations.

As for Fitzpatrick, he sits on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which deals with some trade issues. The first-term House member has been distancing himself from Trump. He voted against Republican’s effort to rescind the Affordable Care Act and criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision removing a public union’s right to collect fees from nonmembers.

Fitzpatrick Aug. 14 said the Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO endorsement recognizes that he has stood up for working people.

“It solidifies what I strive so hard to do each day: represent the working families of Bucks and Montgomery counties as an independent voice, concerned more for their welfare than partisan labels,” he said in a written statement.

Fitzpatrick trails Democratic challenger Scott Wallace by about $3 million in raised campaign dollars. Wallace tallied $5.3 million as of June 30, money that comes from self-funding and contributions from groups like the Transportation Workers Union. He’s also been endorsed by United Steelworkers and the American Postal Workers Union.

Fitzpatrick leads in a race that Cook Political Report, a non-partisan group predicts to “lean Republican.” This district was redrawn in a slightly more Democrat-friendly fashion following a Pennsylvania Supreme Court order.

House Member’s Committee, District Matter

The political landscape is different for Davis, who represents an infrastructure-laden swath of largely rural counties that run from the Missouri state line.

Davis has tallied $2.3 million in campaign donations as of June 30., which outpaces Democratic challenger Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, who reported $1.3 million raised. Union campaign contribution and endorsements have been split between the candidates.

Davis currently leads the race, which the Cook Political Report says “leans Republican.” This comes as the midterm could be a referendum of Trump, who won the district by five points in 2016.

The Davis campaign June 26 announced endorsements of six labor unions such as the International Union of Operating Engineers and the American Federation of Government Employees, both affiliates of the AFL-CIO.

“They know he is an advocate for pro-labor issues, like Davis-Bacon and Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), and has fought back against anti-union attacks from some within his own party,” Davis’ spokeswoman Ashley Phelps told Bloomberg Law in an email. “It’s not surprising he continues to have strong support from workers and why so many of them have put action above politics and endorsed Rodney.”

It also helps that Davis’ district’s borders include some major interstates like I-57 and I-72, in addition to bridges that span the Mississippi River—providing a lot potential jobs for building trades workers.

The IUOE support is strategic, according to Michael LeRoy, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois.

“IUOE Local 150 members are heavily dependent on highway construction work, most of which is federally funded,” he told Bloomberg Law. “The local usually backs Democrats but also has a history of supporting Republicans who specifically address their members’ interests. Rep. Davis’s role on the committee that funds highway projects likely explains Local 150’s support.”

Officials for Local 150 didn’t respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.

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