harold schaitberger, general president, international association of fire fighters

Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, speaks with local firefighters Monday about why the union endorsed presidential candidate Joe Biden.

CLINTON — The International Association of Fire Fighters made clear Monday that it endorses candidates based on what they can do for firefighters professionally. Whether that trumps personal ideological stances on issues such as abortion, the second amendment and LGBTQ issues is a decision each firefighter must make.

Some issues affect their careers, said Harold Schaitberger, general president of IAFF. Other issues are personal. “Your union is focused on professional.”

Except for 2016, IAFF has endorsed a presidential candidate since 1976. “We just could not get a consensus on the Democratic candidate [in 2016],” Schaitberger said.

“We pay attention to our members.” Selecting a 2016 candidate to endorse would have “significantly fractured” the IAFF membership, Schaitberger said.

The union was prepared to endorse Joe Biden in 2015 had he chosen to run, Schaitberger said. The union waited for an announcement that didn’t come.

But its research into Biden’s legislative history wasn’t wasted. When Biden announced his candidacy for the 2020 election, the IAFF endorsed him the same day.

Biden has been supporting firefighters for more than 40 years, said Schaitberger. He’s passed legislation positively effecting firefighters’ pensions, health care and bargaining rights. He supported line-of-duty benefits for families of firefighters killed on duty, including Clinton Fire Lt. Eric Hosette, Schaitberger said.

Hosette, a Clinton firefighter, lost his life while battling a fire in January 2019.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which paid overtime benefits to salaried workers, applied only to the private sector until 1976. Biden helped secure overtime pay under the act for public employees such as firefighters, Schaitberger said.

“Issue after issue, he’s been with us.”

Biden has experienced the services of firefighters first hand, Schaitberger said. In 1972, Biden’s wife, Neilia, and daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident. His two sons’ lives were saved after firefighters extracted them from the car, said Schaitberger.

Years later, Biden’s home was struck by lightning, and firefighters stopped the fire before it destroyed the home. When Biden suffered a brain aneurysm during a storm and a medical helicopter couldn’t reach him, firefighters provided emergency medical care, Schaitberger said.

Endorsing Biden was “an easy decision,” Schaitberger said. Biden supports legislation that supports firefighters. “That’s what we always try to talk to our members about.”

Firefighters can influence the people around them, Schaitberger said. “They’re very understated,” he said, but they have a standing in the community. “It gives them a voice.”

During the caucuses, “when the scrum starts,” firefighters may be able to influence voters to support the IAFF-endorsed candidate.

A third of IAFF members are Republicans, a third are Democrats and a third are Independent, said John Jensen of IAFF’s Des Moines office. “So we have a very diverse group. Which is why we have to be diverse as well.”

IAFF has supported politicians of different parties, said Schaitberger, based on their support of issues that are important to firefighters.

“Joe [Biden] has supported firefighters because it’s the right thing,” Jensen said. “And firefighters support those who support us.”