RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Upset that the Democratic Party is staging its presidential convention in a Southern state long viewed as hostile to organized labor, union leaders are holding a "shadow convention" where they hope to highlight key issues near and dear to middle-class workers.
Prominent labor leaders created the "Workers Stand for America" rally after what they say was their lack of input into planning for the 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte, N.C., which is set to begin Sept. 4. They say thousands of union workers will rally to call attention to issues affecting the middle class. The centerpiece of the event is a "Second Bill of Rights" laying out workers' rights.
Unions have long been a key ally for Democrats, and they gave $8.3 million toward the 2008 convention in Denver that helped President Barack Obama win the White House. Labor officials say that longstanding friendship won't change — nor will their support for Obama. But many are refusing to contribute money to a convention in a state that bans collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers.
"This year we will not be making major monetary contributions to the convention or the host committee for events or activities around the convention," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka wrote in a letter sent to union leaders last month. "We won't be buying skyboxes, hosting events other than the labor delegates meeting or bringing a big staff contingent to the convention."
Top Democrats view North Carolina as crucial to retaining the White House, as it was a key victory for Obama in 2008 when he became the party's first candidate to carry the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976. But the state is the least-unionized in the country, in part because of strong "right-to-work" laws that ban making union membership a condition of employment.
Beyond the shadow convention in Philadelphia, several labor groups have said they plan to protest outside the Charlotte convention. On Monday, a group of unionized Charlotte city workers picketed city hall, as they plan to do every Monday this month.
Left-leaning union members are generally considered to be among the strongest pillars in the Democratic base, so images of them picketing the party's big soiree has Republicans salivating. But political observers warn against reading too much into what is fundamentally a lover's quarrel.
"The unions have to maintain face with their own membership after the party chose a right-to-work state to hold the convention, but in the end they aren't going to abandon the Democrats," said John Szmer, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "The Republican Party has declared war on unions, as seen with what happened in Wisconsin following 2010."
Fundraising figures won't be released until 60 days after the convention, but Szmer predicted organizers would have to turn to corporate donors to make up for the money lost from unions.
In addition to the AFL-CIO, the half-million member Laborers' International Union of North America has not provided any money for Charlotte, said spokesman Rich Greer. LIUNA gave $1.5 million to the Denver convention.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which contributed $1 million for the convention four years ago, is also withholding support this time around. The union's president, Ed Hill, is making a point of not going to Charlotte.
Hill began organizing the Philadelphia rally after a meeting last year with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who is the chairwoman of the Democratic National Convention. Hill was surprised by the selection of Charlotte and left the meeting dissatisfied with the party's commitment to union issues, calling it a "wake-up call."
"We were upset they didn't give any consideration," Hill recounted this week. "It just seemed like at that point the middle-class, working people were being ignored ."
Since then, Democratic organizers have tried to mend fences. Although Charlotte's convention hotels and uptown restaurants are not unionized, the stages that Obama and other Democratic leaders will speak on will be built by union labor, and union workers are also remodeling the Charlotte sports arena that will serve as the convention venue.
The host committee, Charlotte in 2012, is also holding a large Labor Day festival in uptown Charlotte to help launch the week's events. James Andrews, the AFL-CIO president in North Carolina, is on the host organization's steering committee.
Union members are serving as convention delegates, and there are some unions still providing financial support for the event. Among them is the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, which confirmed giving a donation but declined to say how much.
"You can't help make the decisions if you're not in the room when the decisions are made," said Rick Terven, the union's executive vice president.
Wasserman Shultz and other party leaders have also reached out to Hill, Trumka and others organizing the Philadelphia event. The DNC chairwoman will speak at the labor rally this weekend and will sign the "Second Bill of Rights" that is the focus of the event. The document includes the right to a living wage, a quality education, and the rights to organize in the workplace and collectively bargain.
"We are excited to lend our support and to participate in the labor rally in Philadelphia this weekend, which will be an important organizing opportunity in a key battleground state," said DNC Executive Director Patrick Gaspard .
For his part, Hill is making clear his boycott of the Charlotte convention should in no way be inferred as a lack of support for Obama's re-election. He does hope the rally will help refocus the national debate away from whether to renew tax breaks for the wealthy.
"You don't hear anything at all about what's happening to the middle class in this country," Hill said. "It's being decimated. ... We just hope the national debate now starts to take into consideration what's needed for the working people."
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