One of the nation’s most reliably Democratic unions refused to endorse either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, despite its parent union’s embrace of Clinton.
The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), a member of the AFL-CIO, announced at its convention that it would not get involved in the presidential election after the board decided that any endorsement would threaten unity. Union President Harold Schaitberger broke the news to his members during his State of the Union address that the labor group could not endorse a candidate because "this election is like none we have faced before in any of our lifetimes."
"We have two candidates that seem to have trouble telling the truth. Their rancor and their rhetoric is over the top," Schaitberger said at the Aug. 15 convention. "We have discussed that deep and emotional divide in strongly held positions throughout our ranks. So we decided that endorsing a candidate for president in these circumstances would be devastating to so much of what we’ve built and counter-productive to our members’ interests."
IAFF declined to comment for this story.
The union’s neutrality is a major setback for the Clinton campaign. The IAFF has never endorsed a Republican presidential candidate and has spent reliably to elect Democrats. It spent more than $2 million in 2012 to help elect Democrats and President Barack Obama, five times as much money as it gave to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The union backed away from endorsing Clinton in October because Schaitberger "worried that a Clinton endorsement could deeply divide the firefighters," as several union sources told the New York Times. Schaitberger reiterated that message at the convention, saying that the 16-member board felt that it would be unable to maintain unity by endorsing either candidate.
The union went through several rounds of polling among members and leadership. Schaitberger said that the board could not resolve deep divides among firefighters on the ground.
"We have a politically diverse union … but the political divisions of our members concerning this presidential election over the course of this year are profound," he said. "A decision to endorse either way could have the real potential to do true harm to our union’s solidarity."
The Clinton campaign did not return request for comment.
The Clinton snub puts IAFF at odds with its union allies under the AFL-CIO umbrella. The AFL-CIO, which did not return request for comment, endorsed Clinton in June, saying that she "demonstrated a strong commitment to the issues that matter to working people."
Labor watchdogs said that the firefighters’ approach was a healthier way to grant endorsements than the top-down endorsement process that alienated members in other unions during the Democratic primary. Peter List, a former union official and labor consultant, told the Washington Free Beacon that IAFF demonstrated that it was following the will of its members, rather than institutional and political allies, by maintaining neutrality.
"More than anything, the leaders of the IAFF appear to be doing what their members want them to do. This is unlike most other unions’ executive boards—most of whom endorsed Clinton early on, over the wishes of their members," he said.
IAFF plans to shift its focus from national to state and local politics during the rest of the cycle in the hopes of heading off labor reforms passed in former union strongholds, such as Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin since 2010. Schaitberger said that the union’s time and energy is better spent fighting in legislative campaigns.
"We can take on anyone that steps up to challenge us," he said. "We will continue to play heavy and hard in the United States congressional and Senate races where we can make the most difference."