Many cops and firefighters have thrown their allegiance to the GOP for years -- union members who frequently stray from labor's longtime support for Democrats.
A host of new Republican governors is changing all that.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and others took aim at the GOP's most powerful labor antagonists but ended up hitting some of the party's best friends too -- leaving public-safety unions fearful this year's attack on teachers might easily be next year's attack on them.
It's a political shift that could have significant repercussions, and not just because these right-leaning union members vote for Republicans in sizable numbers. Angry cops and firefighters make for bad PR -- especially after Republicans under President George W. Bush aligned themselves so successfully with the heroes of 9/11 in the years since then.
Chuck Canterbury, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said his members are "shocked" by the turn of events.
"Who are these evil teachers who teach your children, these evil policemen who protect them, these evil firemen who pull them from burning buildings? When did we all become evil?" said Canterbury, whose union endorsed Bush in 2000 and 2004 and John McCain in 2008.
He is traveling the country to rally FOP members to rise up against anti-labor laws in their states or in support of their colleagues in other states. "There is going to be a backlash," said Canterbury, a former county police officer in South Carolina. "We are going to hold them accountable."
Already, rank-and-file police officers and firefighters who long viewed themselves as separate from the rest of the movement are carrying picket signs, signing petitions and standing side-by-side with their labor brethren.
In Wisconsin, Walker, who was endorsed by some small police and fire unions, carved out a special exemption for them in his proposal that essentially denies all other public employees the right to collective bargaining.
But when Walker ordered the Capitol police to arrest Wisconsin demonstrators who refused to obey a curfew, they refused -- and instead hundreds of them lined up with the demonstrators to show solidarity.
"We know what's right from wrong," one officer shouted into a bullhorn in the packed Capitol building. "We will not be kicking anyone out. In fact, we will be sleeping here with you!"
In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich and his Republican allies decided against giving police and firemen special treatment, opting instead to try to appeal to their conservative instincts and win them over to the cause.
Since then, Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters, said he's had Republican members "apologize" for backing Kasich. "They are never voting that way again," said Sanders, a Cincinnati fire department lieutenant.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) experienced the blowback firsthand when he attended a recent event for rising leaders in the New York fire department.
"These are down-the-line conservatives. They fully supported Bush in the Iraq war, in the war against terrorism, and on all the gut issues they were there," King said.
"Some of the guys I talked to said, "We stood with Bush on Queens Boulevard. Now, the Republicans have turned on us.' "
Democrats win their share of public-safety union endorsements, and the International Association of Fire Fighters -- which calls itself "the most bipartisan union in the AFL-CIO" -- was one of the first unions to endorse Democrat John Kerry in 2004, and later endorsed Barack Obama in 2008.
But for many public safety workers, the Republican party is a natural home, a comfortable fit for these overwhelmingly white, male and often culturally conservative voters. And in turn, they offer the kind of spit-and-polish endorsements that any politician would crave -- allowing Republicans to peel off labor support from Democrats and boost their tough-on-crime bona fides at the same time.
Now it looks like the 2011 labor fights won't just energize the Democratic-leaning union members but could cause some of the Republican-leaning ones to break away.
The new alliance is being driven by the stakes and rhetoric in the fight, rather than wholesale shift in the conservative leanings of the law enforcement community. Republicans want to weaken or do away with collective bargaining rights so they can slash government employees' pensions and benefits and balance their budgets. A bonus, several have acknowledged, will be hobbling a political adversary before the 2012 elections and beyond.
Although the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the teachers unions are the first facing the chopping block, members of the police and firefighter unions have concluded that, even if exempted today, their hard-fought-for benefits and pensions would become the next target. Already Florida Gov. Rick Scott is taking heat from police and firefighters who say he'd slash their pension benefits.
The fall-out also extends to the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, which is also an enclave for GOP-leaning laborers.
A coalition of building trade unions -- ranging from the Teamsters to the sheet metal workers -- recently held a reception on Capitol Hill for Republican members who'd voted against efforts to erode federal prevailing wage laws.
According to a November Hart Research poll, 55 percent of all union members said they were Democrats and 25 percent were Republicans. Among building trade unions, however, just 47 percent were self-described Democrats and 25 percent said they were Republicans.
But by the time the new House Republican majority arrived in Washington in January shouting a mantra of spending cuts rather than the campaign slogan of jobs, the percentage of trade union members who called themselves Democrats jumped to 63 percent while the self-described Republicans fell to 18 percent -- and that was before the Wisconsin and Ohio collective bargaining fights went from rumors to the nation's front pages.
Sheet Metal Workers International Association President Michael Sullivan is a native of Indiana who grew up in a Republican household.
He recently was in Indianapolis meeting with trade union apprentices fighting several anti-labor proposals in the state legislature, including one that would make Indiana a "right to work" state that would forbid workers from organizing.
"We've always had a good relationship with Republicans in these states. There aren't any moderate Republicans who are in favor of this. These are ideologues and they want to make it an issue because in their minds it's against unions. It's not about working people," said Sullivan.
"With our membership, those who are Republicans, this is the one issue I'm getting letters on and they are saying: "This is war'," he added, noting that more than $200,000 in small checks have poured into the union's political action committee in the past month without any solicitation.
Although Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels has asked the legislature to table the right-to-work bill, a couple dozen Democratic House members stayed out-of-state to stall action on other wage-related legislation they deemed anti-union.
"I think there will be a price to pay," warned Sullivan. "Workers will take this for a while but eventually they will stand up and say, "No.' Maybe that is what is happening now."
That's pretty much the way Ohio labor leaders describe what's happened in their state.
Most police officers didn't believe a restrictive collective bargaining bill would affect them even though Kasich had been captured in a You Tube video talking about it, said Ohio FOP President Jay McDonald.
When the legislation was introduced in February, not only did it include them, its chief sponsor was Republican state Sen. Shannon Jones -- who was endorsed by the FOP.
"She neglected to tell us it was her plan to dismantle collective bargaining," McDonald said ruefully. "In just a few, short months, we have had a dramatic transformation of the feelings of my membership."
Some police officers are talking about running in Republican primaries, others are switching party labels, and all of them are now pressuring state lawmakers to kill the bill or gut it through the amendment process, said Gary Wolske, vice president of police union.
Wolske, an independent, said he won't hold the collective bargaining fight against all Republicans. "No local Republican did anything to me," he said. But, his state Senate representative now is a Democrat and "if a Republican candidate came along, he'd have to really knock my socks off."
Despite their grassroots efforts, Ohio labor leaders didn't expect to prevail in the state legislature, and the measure is well on its way to final passage. So, they are preparing to begin collecting signatures to put the issue before voters in a referendum in November.
The timing of the referendum could have national implications.
If the bill is signed into law by April 6th, the referendum would be on the 2011 Ohio ballot when a smattering of state Senate seats is on the ballot. If the measure becomes law after that, it would push the issue onto the 2012 ballot and into the presidential campaign season when a number of GOP House freshmen from Ohio who narrowly won their seats will also be up for re-election.
Labor leaders are convinced the referendum timing is the primary reason the GOP-controlled state legislature tried to race the bill to the governor's desk.
"There is a lot of voter remorse," said Jack Reall, a battalion chief in Columbus who estimates that roughly 47 percent of his members are Republicans. "I think both parties are aware of that and that it is going to transfer over to the federal races."
Wisconsin labor leaders are taking a different tack, gathering signatures to recall eight state Senate Republicans who voted for the Walker bill. In two weekends, they were more than halfway toward their goal.
Although the teachers unions and others have taken the lead in that effort, they are getting strong assists from firefighters and police officers even though they are exempted from the legislation. One of the more dramatic moments in the fight came when the firefighters union marched into the Capitol in full uniform to join the other demonstrators.
Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association, said his members turned against Walker when the legislation went beyond expectations to include the ban on future collective bargaining rights.
"It's not about money any more. It's about taking away workers' rights to sit down with employees. We couldn't sit idly by and let that happen," he said.
Vic Kamber, an expert on labor politics and adviser to unions, said Republicans are betting that voters -- including conservative union members -- will have forgotten the fight come 2012. "So much more will have happened by then," he said.
But Mitchell and his colleagues in Ohio doubt that will happen given the intensity of the fight, the likelihood that it will drag on through recalls and referendums and the reductions in pay and pensions that could result if Republicans prevail.
"I think this is going to be something like we haven't seen before," said Mitchell. "I think this has scarred enough people that it will be remembered come Election Day."