March 28, 2006 – 7:25 p.m.
When American Airlines flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Harold Schaitberger was not thinking about interoperable communications or how federal disaster response should be structured. When he felt the reverberations of the plane’s impact in his New York Avenue office, he said, “I knew instinctively where our members were.”
As president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), Schaitberger represents one of the strongest symbols of the 9/11 attacks — the first-responders who put their lives on the line every day. On that particular day, Schaitberger lost 343 of his members.
Under Schaitberger’s leadership, the IAFF has evolved into an effective political force, wielding both power and influence in the post-9/11 world.
The IAFF was among the first to support the concept of creating a Department of Homeland Security. And since 2001, firefighters have received $2.1 billion in federal grant dollars, according to DHS. Schaitberger (pronounced Shate-berger) continues to fight for more first responder funding, interoperable communications systems and for federal funds to be distributed based on risk of a terrorist attack or disaster rather than population.
At 59 years old, Schaitberger is politically savvy, popular among members of local IAFF chapters and well-respected by other unions, said Richard W. Hurd, an industrial and labor relations professor at Cornell University. “He’s got strong values,” Hurd said. “He’s also very strategic in his decision-making and very influential.”
Politicians are well aware of Schaitberger’s clout. The IAFF was the first labor union in 2004 to endorse Sen.
Schaitberger came to be the firefighter’s champion by heading down the wrong path.
During his junior year of high school in Northern Virginia, Schaitberger was starting to stray in the “wrong” direction, as he delicately describes it. His mother was raising two boys on her own and juggling two jobs. It was then that a family friend — a Fairfax County firefighter — offered to take Schaitberger under his wing. For the latter part of high school, Schaitberger lived in the Fairfax County Fire Department firehouse. He went to school during the day and slept in a bunk-room with the firefighters at night.
“That’s where I realized this is what I wanted to do,” he said.
At the age of 20, Schaitberger joined the department. By the time he was 24 he had made lieutenant, organized a local union and was elected its first president. In no time he was down in Richmond lobbying the state on behalf of the Virginia Fire Service Council, and it was here that he got his first real lesson in politics. “It takes friends. It takes votes,” he said.
One of his first accomplishments was shepherding the Virginia Heart and Lung Presumption Law through the state legislature. This was among the first of these laws passed in the country that gives firefighters protection for job-related illnesses.
In 1976 Schaitberger was asked to be the IAFF legislative and political director, and as he puts it, “to basically build a national political program that effectively didn’t exist at that time.”
Schaitberger is a natural when it comes to politics, Hurd and others say. In 1988 he became the union president’s chief of staff, and in 2000 he became the 9th IAFF president. That same year Schaitberger was integral in the passing of the Firefighter Investment Response Enhancement (FIRE) Act of 2000, said Rep.
In recent years, the IAFF has been more aggressive about organizing and negotiating union contracts across the country, AFL-CIO president Sweeney said. “Their activism at the grass roots level is far more now than it was years back, and I think that’s a tribute to Schaitberger.”
Schaitberger travels 230 days a year. Last fall he marched alongside firefighters in Detroit protesting 190 layoffs; in 2004 he led a lunch-time rally on the steps of Atlanta City Hall to fight for pay equal to police officers; and in 2003, he rode on the rig with firefighters during the California wildfires.
As he travels the country and delivers galvanizing speeches to his members, Schaitberger likes to quote country singer Toby Keith.
“For those politicians who support our agenda, we’ll support them,” he said during the March 20 legislative conference. “But if you want to square off with us, then you better be ready . . . ‘We will put a boot in your ass because it’s the American way.’ ”
Politicians from both sides of the aisle know that if your eyes are set on the White House, it’s not a bad idea to have the firefighters on your side.
At the IAFF legislative conference earlier this month, guest speakers included GOP national chairman Ken Mehlman and presidential hopefuls Sens.
While Schaitberger acknowledges Democrats have traditionally been more supportive of labor unions, it doesn’t guarantee them an IAFF endorsement, he said. The union is working on its relationships with Republicans, as evidenced by campaign contributions. In 1980, the union’s PAC contributed 9 percent of its funds to Republican candidates, and in the last election cycle, it was up to 34 percent, Schaitberger said.
“It’s always good for politicians to have firefighters with them on the podium during campaigns,” Hurd said.
But Schaitberger is not a fan of the firefighter photo-op when politicians don’t follow through with funding.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, every politician wanted to be photographed with a firefighter. But when push came to shove, firefighters were not given the funding and resources they need despite being the symbol of America’s hero, Schaitberger said.
“We got a lot of lip-service from a lot of decision-makers,” he said. But when it came down to getting the firefighters what they need, “they fell short.”
And politicians are still falling short, he said.
Schaitberger’s formula for dealing with politicians who do not support an IAFF cause is simple: “We work as hard as we can to change their minds,” he said. “Or we work as hard as we can to replace them.”
The IAFF has more than 270,000 members. Its political action committee, FIREPAC, has grown to $3 million, up from about $1.3 million in 2000 — and is one of the top PACs in the country. And while first-responder funds have consistently seen budget cuts over the past few years, lawmakers regularly restore funds to firefighter programs that were cut in the administration’s budget proposals.
“I think the cops need a fighter like Harold Schaitberger,” Pascrell said, referring to the federal cuts in criminal justice programs over the years.
Schaitberger is the first to admit he’s not shy. He’s admittedly obsessed with his work and has no hobbies. He did not go to college, and he attributes his success to instincts.
“I am what you see,” he said. “This is what I do.”
Eileen Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com