Unions mobilize on behalf of Democratic candidates

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Five federal employee unions have spent millions of dollars assisting presidential and congressional campaigns and are encouraging their members to vote next Tuesday in what they see as a critical election.

The unions made $3 million in campaign contributions as of Oct. 19, and spent an additional $2.9 million on other election-related efforts, including education campaigns, volunteer programs and support for political action committees. The lion's share of the money went to Democratic candidates.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association is one of the smaller federal employee unions, with about 20,000 members. But, it has given far more money than any other federal union. The union contributed $1.9 million to congressional candidates as of Oct. 19, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Seventy-nine percent of NATCA's donations went to Democrats. The union also spent $500,000 to support the AFL-CIO's Working America program to build support and alliances with nonunion workers, and $150,000 to help the Democratic National Committee's convention planning activities.

"We're a small union, and we have to fight above our class weight," said Jose Ceballos, NATCA's government affairs director. "We have to look for any opportunity we can to stand out."

Ceballos estimated that 800 current and retired air traffic controllers have volunteered on campaigns, many of them through the AFL-CIO's coordinated efforts. Some of those volunteers are making calls to voters in other states to support candidates such as comedian Al Franken, the Democrat trying to unseat Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. Others are walking door-to-door to support Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's campaign in Colorado, among other states.

The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union, which represents Federal Aviation Administration and Defense Department technicians, made $207,500 in campaign contributions, with 91 percent going to Democrats. PASS and NATCA both have engaged in heated struggles with FAA over limits to their rights in contract negotiations. Obama introduced a bill that would ban FAA from imposing pay and work rules on its employees, though the legislation never came to the floor for a vote.

The AFL-CIO-affiliated International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents Defense workers and has been a strong opponent of the Bush administration's pay reforms, is working with the AFL-CIO and through a separate political coalition of unions called the Alliance. The coalition includes the Communications Workers of America, the United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers.

IFPTE is a smaller donor; the union had made $30,500 in contributions as of Oct. 19, sending 93 percent of that money to Democrats. But Matt Biggs, the union's legislative director, said its on-the-ground efforts have been more aggressive than in previous election cycles. For example, IFPTE has four union staffers working for Democratic Senate candidate Ronnie Musgrove in Mississippi as he tries to defeat incumbent Roger Wicker.

The American Federation of Government Employees, another AFL-CIO member union, has taken a somewhat different approach to the election, focusing its independent efforts on making sure registered voters are allowed to cast their ballots and are not turned away from the polls illegally. The 600,000-member union has cut radio ads on voter protection in English and Spanish telling voters to "demand your right to cast a ballot."

AFGE President John Gage also has recorded an ad urging voters to consider the economy and health care rather than focusing on race and gender issues. And AFGE is making campaign contributions; the union had donated $592,050 as of Oct. 19, with 96 percent going to Democrats. AFGE also opposed the new Defense pay system, and has started organizing Transportation Security Administration employees, who currently lack collective bargaining rights. Obama voted in favor of language in a bill to implement unfulfilled recommendations of the 9/11 commission that would have granted such rights, while McCain backed a more limited version.

The 150,000-member National Treasury Employee Unions, which also represents TSA workers and is fighting a major federal hiring program in court on the basis that it circumvents the traditional competitive process for filling vacancies, has made $306,100 in contributions, sending 95 percent to Democrats. The union is focusing on swing states in the election, targeting Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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