Labor delegates were invited to a city with no union hotels in a right-to-work state to watch politicians who haven’t worked up a sweat advancing a labor agenda deliver speeches in a stadium named for one of the big banks that unionists swear have throttled the American dream. And still they came.
Not all of them, of course. The United Mineworkers of America, to name one big union, has decided not to endorse in the presidential race. And Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has said that resources would be diverted to events such as a workers rally in Philadelphia last month rather than being used to purchase skyboxes in Charlotte. Money will also be injected into governors races this fall in order to stanch a wave of state-level union-crackdown legislation.
“We’re always with the Dems, but the Dems aren’t always with us. There is clearly a frustration there,” said Steven Tolman, Massachusetts AFL-CIO president and a former Democratic state senator. “Many of the labor leaders are not enthralled with the party, because we feel we are the worker bees for the Democratic Party and sometimes our issues are put on the back burner a little too quickly.”
Fear, though, is a potent political motivator, and an apt description of what many unionists say they feel at the thought of Republican rule.
Movement leaders genuinely like Obama, labor officials said, but don’t feel he has ever rallied to their cause. Despite no discernible labor-policy victory during President Obama’s term—although labor was crucial in passing the 2010 health care law—unions will battle fiercely for his reelection, officials say, even if their chief inspiration is to avoid the alternative: Mitt Romney.
They point to Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker curtailed collective bargaining. Walker faced a recall, but won that election by a margin larger than in his 2010 victory.
In Ohio, labor and Democrats worked together to repeal Gov. John Kasich’s collective-bargaining restrictions. Indiana in February became the first Rust Belt state to adopt a right-to-work law. And labor leaders recognize that the prevailing spending-cut winds directly target public-sector members and threaten public contracts with less funding with which to hire private-sector members.
If, during what labor leaders call an unprecedented antiunion climate, it seems odd to host a convention in the nation’s least-unionized state, labor has taken note. It’s the latest in a long march of reasons to feel underappreciated by a party that unions have staunchly supported. Activists remain disappointed in Obama’s lackluster effort to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would ease unionization. Even the health care law evokes feelings of betrayal; labor leaders resent that Democrats retreated in the debate over taxing “Cadillac” health plans.
Democrats in Charlotte, though, note that convention organizers have reached out to union shops in preparing for the convention, and they advise labor to use Charlotte’s spotlight to reassert itself.
“Clearly, the Democratic Party has a big tent, and sometimes it’s a big, noisy tent,” Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, told Convention Daily on Sunday. “But if we just put conventions in places where we all agree, we may never have another convention. When there is a dynamic like the one we have with labor here, you really use it as an opportunity for labor to really make its case.”
Labor delegates gathering on Tuesday morning in a hotel around the corner from the convention center are likely to hear the same “swallow and press forward” message they have repeatedly stomached to aid Democrats.
Ultimately, unions still plan to send hundreds of thousands of campaign workers into the field and foot hefty costs to elect Democrats. But the spiral of disaffection big labor feels with the Democratic Party is unlikely to dissipate in Charlotte.
This article appears in the September 3, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.