CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Casting North Carolina as an anti-union bastion with "regressive policies aimed at diluting the power of workers," more than a dozen trade unions affiliated with the national AFL-CIO have told the Democratic National Committee that they will sit out the 2012 convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Coming on the heels of some liberals' complaints that President Barack Obama is giving in to Republicans, the unions' decision is another sign that key Democratic allies are unhappy with Obama and other party leaders as they gear up for a difficult election season.
It's also a signal that anything relating to Charlotte — from its besieged hometown bank to its lack of unionized hotels — will face scrutiny as the city eases into the national spotlight.
Labor unions have long played an integral role in Democratic conventions. And some big ones, including the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union, still plan to be active participants when the Democrats come to Charlotte in 2012.
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Local and state labor leaders also are still on board. The N.C. AFL-CIO helped lobby for Charlotte to be the convention site. On Friday, a leader of the Raleigh-based labor group called the national unions' decision understandable, but "shortsighted."
"I think the only way we're going to change things here is if people understand the struggles here. I'm encouraged that the Democratic Party wants to make investments here in the state," said MaryBe McMillian, secretary-treasurer of the N.C. AFL-CIO. "This convention is going to bring much-needed work for union members and thousands of unemployed North Carolinians." With new Democratic convention rules barring donations from corporations, federal lobbyists and PACs — including those affiliated with labor unions — the Charlotte gathering already was forecast to be less reliant than past conventions on big financial support from organized labor.
Still, the decision by the national unions — representing 2.5 million workers in the building and construction trades — reflects disappointment from labor activists who Democrats count on to get union members to the polls.
"There is broad frustration with the party and all elected officials, broad frustration with the lack of a union agenda," Michael Monroe, chief of staff of the AFL-CIO's building trades division, told The Associated Press. "People are looking for outlets to express that frustration." The decision by the building trades came after a vote by leaders of the unit's 13 affiliate unions, including the Laborers, Painters and Electrical Workers.
In a letter this week to Democratic Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the unions bemoaned the persistently high unemployment rate nationwide and the choice of Charlotte at a time when union members "face assault after assault" in Washington and in some state capitals.
"We find it troubling that the party so closely associated with basic human rights would choose a state with the lowest unionization rate in the country," Mark Ayers, president of the building trades unit, wrote Wasserman, who is also a congresswoman from Florida.
Those busy planning the Charlotte convention appeared unfazed — at least publicly — by the unions' action.
"We were proud to have the support of local labor leaders when we chose Charlotte to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention, including the N.C. AFL-CIO," Democratic National Convention Committee CEO Steve Kerrigan said in a statement. "The DNCC will continue to work closely with local and national labor leaders as we prepare for the convention next September." That reaction was echoed by former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dan Murrey, who now heads Charlotte's host committee.
"We've been having frequent discussions with the local labor unions and the state representatives," he said. "They've been very helpful in the planning process and ... on getting the word out to people." Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who led Charlotte's campaign to get the convention, had no comment, deferring to party officials, said a spokesman.
There was also no comment from Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, who is leading the local fundraising campaign for the convention. "His work in this effort continues," said spokesman Tom Williams. "Any actual status on numbers will be via the election (fundraising) reports." Despite the strong language in the unions' letter, at least one of the 13 says it is still considering whether to go.
"The Teamsters Union has not gone through our own internal decision process about the Democratic National Convention," said spokeswoman Leigh Strope.
Monroe of the AFL-CIO said the decision doesn't preclude individual members of the unions from running as delegates, and some of the unions apparently are still considering how to proceed.
But the angst could spread. The International Association of Machinists, which is not part of the building trades, said it also has decided to skip the convention after participating for decades.
"This is the union that came up with the idea for Labor Day and this convention starts on Labor Day in a right-to-work state," said IAM spokesman Rick Sloan. "We see that as an affront to working men and women across this country." Monroe said the unions are being careful not to use the term "boycott" because they don't want to damage Obama's re-election prospects. He said money is also a major factor, when unions are spending millions trying to beat back efforts by Republican lawmakers to diminish union rights in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states.
"It would be disappointing to our members to see us doing business as usual, diverting resources that we know are scarce when we should be laser-like focused on getting elected officials focused on the jobs agenda," Monroe said.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka warned earlier this year that unions would focus more of their energy and money shoring up local affiliates and less on boosting a single political party.
The choice of North Carolina earlier this year provoked immediate outrage among labor leaders, who said it was another indication that Democrats take union support for granted. But Democrats defended the decision, saying it's part of the party's push to win crucial swing states in the South, including a state that Obama carried in 2008.
Organized labor and Democrats had a similar squabble over the choice of Denver for the 2008 convention, where the gathering was held at the non-union Pepsi Center and the city had few unionized hotels. At one point, Teamsters President James Hoffa threatened to "blow up" the convention with picketing and protests if union issues were not worked out.
But the two sides ultimately struck a deal to staff the Pepsi Center with union employees.