Labor skipping Charlotte festivities

Union leadership noticeably absent at right-to-work convention site


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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There will be something lacking in the Labor Day parade here today: namely, labor.

Unions -- traditionally a force at Democratic National Conventions -- are largely skipping the quadrennial festivities here this week. That means they aren't here to participate in today's Labor Day Parade, either.

Many of Charlotte's local unions are still marching, but their ranks won't be fleshed out by brethren from across the country, who typically converge on Democratic convention cities to volunteer, rally and host policy briefings.

Labor leaders are angry that the party chose to have its convention in a right-to-work state and in a city they say has too few unionized workers.

"Unions are all about solidarity," said Phil Smith, spokesman for United Mine Workers of America.

"There are plenty of other places this convention could have been held where union members would have been involved from start to finish in the preparation, the planning, the work, the set-up, the operation, the tear down and every aspect of dealing with this convention."

The AFL-CIO is bowing out, too. "We won't be buying skyboxes, hosting events other than the labor delegates meeting or bringing a big staff to the convention," union president Richard Trumka, a Pittsburgh native, wrote last month in a letter to his union's local leaders.

Don't confuse the message of the boycott. Unions still support President Obama and Democratic policy.

"Does that mean unions will abandon Obama in November? Don't bet on it," said Phillip Wilson, president of the Labor Relations Institute, a human resources consulting firm in Oklahoma. "Unions will be around, especially in state and local elections, where they feel they have more control over the politicians they help elect."

Some union members, though, are disenchanted with Mr. Obama for blocking the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline, which would have brought thousands of new construction jobs. Labor groups also are also disappointed in him for not pressing hard enough for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize. Some, such as United Mine Workers of America members, oppose new environmental regulations that they say harm the coal mining industry.

The UMW, which strongly backed Mr. Obama in 2008, hasn't decided whether to endorse him for re-election.

It also is among the unions skipping out on Charlotte this year, a marked change from 2004 and 2008, when it sponsored receptions and briefed state delegations on labor issues in Boston and Denver.

"That's not to say we disrespect the workers in North Carolina who are not union members. We wish they were union members, but the way the laws are in North Carolina it's very difficult for them to become union members without going through intimidation factors by their employers," Mr. Smith said.

"We don't think it's right to reward that" by having a convention there, he said.

Other unions though, are firmly behind the president, even as they decry the party's choice of a convention location.

"We are deeply committed to re-elect President Obama and Vice President Biden," Mr. Trumka said in his letter.

This spring unions invested heavily in a bid to oust Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose "budget repair bill" weakened union positions in collective bargaining. The effort ultimately was unsuccessful, but labor leaders and political scientists alike say union resources weren't wasted.

While the outcome was disheartening to the labor movement, it also fired up union members in a presidential election year. It galvanized them around an issue and made them more determined to stop retrenchment of worker rights beyond Wisconsin, said Stephen Medvic, chairman of the Department of Government at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

"I don't think a high-profile battle like that is ever a waste because it draws attention to your issue," he said.

This Labor Day, the union's issue is right-to-work, and leaders are incensed that the Democratic National Committee is holding its biggest event here.

After the convention, though, labor is likely to return to supporting the party and its candidates. Their alternative is to step away and give an advantage to Mitt Romney, whose policy statement says unions too often "drive up costs and introduce rigidities that harm competitiveness and frustrate innovation."

That isn't likely to happen.

Once labor has made its point about the convention location, unions will be out in force for Mr. Obama, Mr. Medvic said.

"Ultimately it's the policy concerns that are paramount, and I think there won't be conflict there," he said.

"The tricky thing about coalitions within the parties is that you've got to balance a lot of different things if you're organizing this convention," he said. "You want to have it in a swing state where you might be able to really appeal to voters by having it there, and if that happens to be a place that isn't friendly to unions, then you've got a dilemma."

Unions already are showing signs of moving past the convention location controversy.

In the letter, Mr. Trumka -- who is in Charlotte this week as a delegate -- said the AFL-CIO's priority is to invest "in a long-term labor movement structure to build power for working men and women. The priority in this election cycle is to register and protect voters -- together with our allies -- and to educate and mobilize working-class voters to stand up for themselves and their families, and elect leaders who'll stand with us."

To back that up, the union earlier this month sent a mailer to Ohio and Pennsylvania. It accuses Mitt Romney of putting profits ahead of worker safety and attacking collective bargaining rights.

Ohioans can expect to see a lot more messages like that from labor groups who believe they can attract votes there, a key swing state where union membership is 14 percent, two percentage points higher than membership for the nation as a whole. It's also a state that last year resoundingly voted down a referendum that would have limited the powers of unions representing public-sector employees.

"If I'm Obama, I'm thinking if I can bring the labor vote together in Ohio and it can carry the state for me, then I'm in great shape. And Romney has to be thinking, I have to find a way to counter the labor vote in Ohio, and that's a difficult thing to do because you need a certain percentage of those labor votes," said Michael Federici, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Mercyhurst University in Erie.

That referendum spurred workers' interest in the 2012 presidential election which pits a labor-friendly Democrat against a business-friendly Republican.

Not all unions are staying away from Charlotte.

United Auto Workers members, for example, are in town to show their support for a president they say helped the auto industry. Their backing was solidified last week, when the Obama administration finalized Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which UAW favored because it will provide relief from volatile fuel prices, making car ownership more accessible.

"Cleaner vehicles that significantly reduce our nation's oil consumption are good for the auto industry and its workers, good for the environment and good for our nation's economy," said UAW President Bob King, who is attending this week's convention.

Eighty-nine UAW are among the 2,286 delegates whose votes will put Mr. Obama on the ballot for re-election.

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Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 1-703-996-9292. First Published September 3, 2012 4:15 AM


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