Unions are generally strong supporters of the Democratic Party. But not all unions or their members are on the same page with the party over its choice to hold its nominating convention in Charlotte, or how the party is going about it.
CHARLOTTE — Unions and Democrats go together like bread and butter, right? The Democratic Party and unions have had a reciprocal relationship for years: Unions provide the party with both financial and political support, while the party supports them in national legislation.
But the choice of holding the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina — a right-to-work state that does not allow employees to collectively bargain — has ruffled some feathers among unions in North Carolina and around the country. Unions like the AFL-CIO have curtailed their involvement this year, and the United Mine Workers, a strong supporter of Barack Obama in 2008, are still deciding whether to officially endorse him this time around.
Chris Cecil, a shop steward with Teamsters Local 391 in Greensboro, NC, is dissatisfied with the convention location and Obama in general.
“Just look at where he’s giving his acceptance speech,” he said as he hands out leaflets to passersby: “Bank of America Stadium.”
Cecil notes that Duke Energy, the primary power provider for the Southeast, and a major sponsor of the DNC, has a less than stellar reputation with safe working conditions, fair labor practices, and providing decent wages. And even over 30 years after Harlan County USA was made, he says, their reputation has not improved.
Cecil, a lifelong Democrat, campaigned for Obama in 2008.
“I remember how elated people were, and thinking things were going to change,” he said. “And really and truly, things haven’t changed. When Obama was on the campaign trail in 2008, he said that he would walk the picket lines with labor and we haven’t seen it. He’s unwilling to stand with us.”
But Scott Thrower, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 379 in Charlotte, sees the DNC as an opportunity to educate the public, especially locals, about unions. In Charlotte, he says, unions are “a hush-hush topic.” He says due to the history of unions in North Carolina in the 1920s and 30s, locals have a “cotton mill mentality in Charlotte — people who live here have been bred in church and school to believe that unions are bad.”
None of the hotels that delegates are staying in have unionized workers, but Thrower, a union man for over 25 years, says Local IBEW 379 has had at least 70 workers laying down cables and running the electrical power for Carolinafest, the pre-DNC celebration.
Tensions among unions that officially endorse Obama at the DNC and other workers’ rights groups ran high at the Labor Day march in Charlotte yesterday morning. The march ended at Frazier Park, where Occupy Charlotte was camping out. While members of SEIU were chanting pro-Obama slogans, Occupy protestors shouted anti-Obama slogans, until some SEIU members decided to leave the rally.
North Carolina will be a swing state in the election, and Charlotte was crucial in helping Obama win North Carolina in 2008. Chris Dugovich, a Washington State delegate and President/Executive Director of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, sees the choice of Charlotte as a necessary evil.
“They probably could have picked a better location,” he said, “but I understand why they came here, just so long as it helps us win in November.”
Dugovich said the Obama administration has a good track record with unions, and most importantly, in an attempt to make health care more affordable for workers. It’s been a tough road, he said, and despite what he called the “terrible circumstances” of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and many Senate filibusters by the GOP, the Supreme Court recently upheld Obama’s health care mandate.
One Obama administration failure in the view of unions is The Employee Free Choice Act, a legislative bill that was introduced in 2009 that would have changed how employees form and join labor organizations. Known as the “card check bill,” it would have allowed a union to gain recognition without a private ballot. Highly controversial, the bill stalled in Congress.
For now, North Carolina has the lowest unionization rate — 2.9% — of any state in the country. And Cecil says union members in North Carolina can’t make that number change without Obama’s help.
“Right now, Southern trade unionists are at the weakest we’ve ever been. It’s been that way for the last half century.” Cecil says. “Collective bargaining is a human right. And Obama needs to do whatever he can to support that.”