Look no further than the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to measure the price that Democrats are paying for the decision to hold their national convention in union-hostile territory without labor's input.
Traditionally a generous supporter of Democratic conventions, IBEW contributed $1 million to fund the festivities in Denver in 2008. This year, it will instead be writing its check for a “Workers Stand for America” rally in Philadelphia on Aug. 11.
The rally, financed in part by money from IBEW and other unions that would otherwise be going toward the Sept. 3 convention in Charlotte, N.C., will showcase a “second bill of rights” intended to refocus attention on middle-class concerns—jobs, living wages, energy, and educational opportunity. At a Thursday afternoon press conference announcing the initiative, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said both President Obama and top Republican candidate Mitt Romney will be asked to sign the document, along with other elected officials and candidates as a barometer of where they stand on worker’s issues.
The road to the rally began almost a year ago, when IBEW President Ed Hill requested a meeting with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and other top DNC officials about their choice of Charlotte.
It wasn’t just that North Carolina was a right-to-work state with the lowest rate of unionization in the country, Hill said. Nor was it the fact that delegates, lobbyists, and bigwig Democrats would be hobnobbing at nonunion hotels and listening to speeches at the nonunion Charlotte Convention Center.
For Hill, it went beyond that. “There was no discussion really with the leadership of the AFL-CIO or with the building trades,” he told National Journal. “Maybe it was just a wake-up call to the fact that no one was really asking us, no one was really talking to us, no one was really discussing our issues that have been laying out there for a long time and eating at people.”
Had labor’s concerns fallen so far off the radar that they were an afterthought for the party? That was the impression Hill left with after his July 25, 2011, meeting with Wasserman Schultz, DNC Executive Director Patrick Gaspard, and aide Jason O’Malley.
“It didn’t seem to bother her any, frankly,” Hill said of Wasserman Schultz’s reaction to his grievances. “There was no offer of solution; there was no discussion of much of anything else—we said what we were planning to do, and we excused ourselves.”
At Thursday's press conference, Hill said he had met with Wasserman Schultz earlier in the day and that she had agreed to participate in the rally in Philadelphia and sign on to the worker’s bill of rights, as well as attempt to incorporate pieces of it into the Democratic platform.
“We had a very good meeting,” Hill said.
The rift was never with Obama—Hill for one says he’s an avid supporter, and unions will play their customary key role in turning out Democratic voters this fall. But the sour state of relations between convention organizers and labor has had some concrete ramifications. Like IBEW, other unions have scaled back or zeroed out their financial contributions to the convention, citing unease with the location, changes in their internal strategy, or their own strapped finances.
Earlier this week, in a memo to member presidents and the executive council, Trumka indicated that the AFL-CIO would proceed in a similar manner. He encouraged them to support the Philadelphia rally and laid out the thinking on Charlotte.
“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 wrote. “We won’t be buying skyboxes, hosting events other than the labor-delegates meeting, or bringing a big staff contingent to the convention.”
An AFL-CIO official said that the decision was motivated solely by the organization’s strategy of focusing on grassroots efforts this election cycle, and the outcome would have been the same regardless of where the convention was held. In 2008, the AFL-CIO contributed a relatively modest $100,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Laborers' International Union of North America, by contrast, kicked in $1.5 million—making it the second-largest contributor to the Denver convention. This year, the organization is significantly pulling back.
“We saw Denver as a significant opportunity at a very historic time to raise the visibility of the work of LIUNA and all men and women who build this country,” LIUNA spokesman Richard Greer wrote in an e-mail. “This cycle, we’re focusing our resources on informing, organizing, and mobilizing our members and their families to reelect President Obama and progressive candidates at the state and federal level.”
The list goes on: The Communications Workers of America will only be offsetting the costs of members attending the convention, not contributing directly as it did by giving $52,000 in 2008. Unite Here told The Wall Street Journal in May that it will be keeping its $100,000 this time around. A dozen other labor organizations are boycotting the convention altogether, although many others are still planning to send delegates.
While the idea for the Philadelphia counter-rally was born initially from dissatisfaction with the Charlotte decision, Hill insists that the event is not meant to challenge or distract. Instead, organizers said they hope their bill of rights becomes a subject of discussion at both the Republican and Democratic conventions in the weeks following.
“We’re disappointed in not necessarily the way the campaign is going or any one individual or party. We’re disappointed that the middle class is being decimated,” Hill said. “There’s all kinds of issues laying out there that we can’t seem to wrap our hands around because of all of the infighting, and we need to get back on track.”
Trumka, too, downplayed the connection between the Charlotte convention decision and the Workers Stand for America rally.
“They’re two separate things,” he said. “This is a campaign to focus on the needs of working people.
“I can’t think of a single convention where there weren’t issues that had to be dealt with,” he added.
Democratic National Committee press secretary Melanie Roussell said that the convention committee was happy to have broad support from organized labor, but declined to comment on the rally in Philadelphia, IBEW’s decision to redirect its convention money, or Hill’s characterization of the meeting.
Democrats’ struggles to raise money for their Charlotte soiree have been widely publicized. Bloomberg News reported in late June that Democrats have only managed to lock in less than $10 million of their stated $36.6 million goal. Perhaps the shortfall is not all too surprising when you consider that unions put up $8 million for the convention in Denver.
“The trade-union movement has always been of the principle that we reward our friends,” Hill said. Something that the Democrats might want to keep in mind in 2016.
This article appears in the July 12, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.