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Building Trade Unions Plan to Sit Out Democratic National Convention

We’ve heard a lot about labor disassociating itself from the national Democratic Party in a preference to wage battles in the states. Now we’re seeing one of the biggest examples of that. The 2012 Democratic National Convention will happen in Charlotte, North Carolina. There are no union hotels in that city, and North Carolina is a right-to-work state. For unions to participate in the DNC would represent the de facto crossing of a kind of picket line, in support of non-union hotels. The decision has come down – over a dozen unions will sit out the DNC.

The unions — all part of the AFL-CIO’s building and construction trades unit — told party officials this week they are gravely disappointed that labor was not consulted before Democrats settled on Charlotte, N.C., where there are no unionized hotels.

“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 due to regressive policies aimed at diluting the power of workers,” Mark Ayers, president of the building trades unit, wrote in a letter to Democratic Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

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 unions. Overall, they represent about 2.5 million members.

“There is broad frustration with the party and all elected officials, broad frustration with the lack of a union agenda,” said Michael Monroe, chief of staff of the building trades division. “People are looking for outlets to express that frustration.”

This doesn’t mean that unions will not be represented at the 2012 DNC. The SEIU, NEA and the state AFL-CIO actually have offered statements of support for the Charlotte site for the convention. The Teamsters, one of the signatories to the letter, even expressed some hesitancy over whether they would boycott. What’s more, individual members of the unions involved could still attend, according to Monroe, the chief of staff of the building trades. And, new DNC rules state that they will not accept contributions for the convention from lobbyists, corporations or PACs, including union PACs. So I don’t know how much this hurts the DNC financially. Finally, they’re saying this now, but it’s a long way until next September.

But clearly this wouldn’t be happening if there was a good working relationship between the Democrats and organized labor, on both counts. Democrats wouldn’t have chosen an anti-union site for their convention, and labor unions wouldn’t basically announce a boycott. In 2008, the Pepsi Center in Denver was a non-union site, but a deal was made to staff it with union members for the convention. Somehow I doubt the same accommodation will be made here.

But at a larger level, this does offer an example of labor walking off the national playing field to some extent, and focusing on the state-level battles it has to win in order to survive. We saw labor come up just short in taking back the state Senate in Wisconsin, but building a grassroots movement that they plan to carry to attempt a recall of Gov. Scott Walker. A similar battle is shaping up in Ohio, where labor feels confident they can pass a citizen veto of an anti-union law approved by the right-wing legislature that would strip most collective bargaining rights and the right to strike. The wild card there is that a separate initiative will be on the ballot that would symbolically toss out the individual mandate provision in the federal health care law. So partisans on both sides will bring a lot of energy to the polls in November.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a speech earlier this year that unions would be more focused at the state rather than the federal level in the 2012 cycle. This move by the building trades gives some evidence for that. And this quote from the International Association of Machinists gives you some idea of the anger out there.

But the angst goes beyond the trade unions. The International Association of Machinists, which is not part of the building trades, said it has also 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.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen