Unions shrug at Democratic convention
By: Robin Bravender
September 1, 2012 04:00 PM EDT
Labor unions and Democrats form a pretty traditional political alliance that’s usually on display in full force at the national conventions. Big labor historically spent big money on concerts, lunches, rallies and panels for its members, and spent millions to help fund the Democrats’ party.
This year? Not so much.
Some union officials are sitting out the political fete entirely after the Democrats chose a labor-unfriendly location in the right-to-work state of North Carolina. Others are sending skeleton staffs to support their union delegates, but say they’re focusing resources elsewhere. Labor groups aren’t shelling out for big events in Charlotte, and many aren’t even donating cash to the cause — despite their exemption from new restrictive fundraising rules.
“I think there’s going to be just less participation this time; there’s less enthusiasm,” said Moses Mercado, a Democratic lobbyist who has attended the past four Democratic conventions. “And it’s going to be noticeable,” he added. “Obviously, they’re a big part of the Democratic family; they’ve always been, and they’ve played a large role in funding and doing other things at the convention.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka will be in Charlotte and is planning a meeting for labor delegates on Tuesday morning. But Trumka has made it clear that the union’s participation will be scaled far back from what it has been.
“In recognition of the changes we have made in our political program, however, and our desire to engage in politics in a more effective and grass-roots way, this year we will not be making major monetary contributions to the convention or the host committee for events or activities around the convention,” Trumka said in a letter last month to union officials. “We won’t be buying skyboxes, hosting events other than the Labor Delegates meeting or bringing a big staff contingent to the convention.”
Another labor group, Workers Stand for America, will have members out in the streets of Charlotte encouraging people to sign a pro-labor “bill of rights.” The group — which has the backing of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the AFL-CIO and other labor groups — held a rally in Philadelphia in August that some dubbed a “shadow convention” amid labor groups’ grumblings about Charlotte.
The Laborers’ International Union of North America was the top union donor to the 2008 convention, spending $1.5 million. LIUNA also sponsored roundtables and billboards, and had advertisements on buses and hotel key cards in Denver. But union officials have said they won’t be giving at all to this year’s event.
Even some officials planning to go to Charlotte say their attention will be elsewhere.
“There’s real concern out there about the timing of this convention being a distraction” said Tim Waters, political director at the United Steelworkers Union. “The whole time anybody’s there, they’re going to be thinking about getting back to rejoin the battle that is waging on the ground in key states.”
Waters, who plans to attend the convention, said that union officials are focusing their attention on programs back home as the election season enters its homestretch. “We’re just caught in this vortex of huge special interest money being dumped into these super PACs and trying to offset that by really having one-on-one conversations with people on the ground; that’s just where the focus is,” he said.
Some labor groups cut back on attendance and donations after the Democrats decided to hold the festivities in North Carolina — despite unions’ concerns about labor rights in the state. Others say the decision is part of their broader plans to focus their attention on state and local races.
But not all labor unions are feeling lukewarm about the Charlotte festivities.
The Service Employees International Union — which donated $1.4 million to the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver — has donated to the event in Charlotte, and President Mary Kay Henry will be on the ground in Charlotte with about 80 SEIU member delegates.
And convention organizers have said unions are pitching in with cash, by sending delegates and holding briefings, meetings and other events.
Labor unions have also gotten a boost of enthusiasm after the Republican National Convention in Tampa, although it won’t likely change their plans for Charlotte.
The 2012 Republican platform includes a sharply worded section on unions accusing the Obama administration of concentrating power in the “Washington offices of union elites.” It advocates the enactment of a national right-to-work law, which goes beyond support in previous GOP platforms for states’ rights to enact right-to-work laws. The platform also salutes “Republican governors and state legislators who have saved their states from fiscal disaster by reforming their laws governing public employee unions.”
GOP governors and rising stars in the party also took several jabs at labor. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley accused President Barack Obama of sacrificing American jobs “to pacify the bullying union bosses he counts as his allies,” referring to a fight between Boeing and the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie touted his efforts to “take on the public-sector unions” and “speak the truth to the teachers union” by pursuing teacher-tenure reform.
“Any qualms that labor activists might have had about getting fully emotionally engaged in this election cycle will be put to the side by the end of Tampa,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser. “The rhetoric from Christie and Haley was angry, divisive and illogical.”