NASHVILLE — When the Tennessee Democratic Party holds its annual fundraiser Saturday, the already beleaguered party is expected to take another hit: One of its traditionally big supporters, organized labor, is planning to keep its wallet tightly shut.
That's because the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, the umbrella group for state labor unions, last month ratified an executive board decision to halt direct contributions to the state Democratic and Republican parties and state House and Senate party caucuses.
The move is expected to hurt Democrats most since the unions give little to no money to Republican organizations.
Tennessee AFL-CIO President Gary Moore, a former Democratic House member, emphasized that unions still intend to give to individual lawmakers and candidates. Unions will support any Democrat -- or Republican -- deemed "friendly to working people" on various issues, Moore said.
The new policy is intended to address labor's concerns in the recent legislative session when several Democratic lawmakers joined with majority Republicans to pass various bills. Democratic support helped Republicans pass Gov. Bill Haslam's controversial overhaul of workers' compensation, which unions opposed, Moore said.
"This past legislative session we tracked everybody's voting record," Moore explained. "We expected the majority of the Republicans to vote against us. What we didn't expect was some of the Democrats to vote the wrong way."
He said the "shining example" was Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, who voted for all six Republican bills that labor groups opposed. Moore said he considers Curtiss a friend but was upset.
The issue was that"we had no control where they [parties and caucuses] spent the money" given by labor unions, Moore said. "They might spend the money on candidates who are not very friendly to the working men and women of this state."
Efforts to contact state Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron, a former state senator, by telephone and through a party spokesman were unsuccessful.
The Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council represents some 300 unions and affiliates that have some 60,000 or so members.
The Labor Council itself doesn't contribute that much, but its member unions do. For example, three plumber and pipefitter unions or associations in 2012 collectively gave $107,000 to the state Democratic Party, the House Democratic Caucus and the Senate Democratic Caucus in 2012, state Registry of Election Finance records show.
Moore said he expects some union locals and international unions will continue to give money to the state party and legislative caucuses.
"But they won't be giving what they gave in the past. Some won't be giving any. Some of the individual unions will be shutting off the spigots as well," he said.
Moore said the labor council will give to individual candidates and sometimes make independent expenditures on their behalf.
State House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville maintained the move is "not really that big of a deal."
A Nashville firefighter, Turner recalled he had pushed for a similar policy when he was on the state AFL-CIO Labor Council in the 1990s.
"It's just an old policy they reviewed," Turner said. "It shouldn't affect what we're doing. We'll have agreements with individuals unions and groups."
The once mighty Democratic caucuses formerly controlled Tennessee's General Assembly. But Republicans over the last four election cycles seized control and built up supermajorities. A number of business and other special interests have shifted the majority of their contributions over to the GOP.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...
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