Unions vying for DNC jobs

Event organizers say they'll be fair to local contractors.

cesmith@charlotteobserver.comNovember 13, 2011 

  • Putting feet on the ground and money in the bank, organized labor has long been a strong Democratic ally. But the 2012 Democratic National Convention is operating under new self-imposed rules that effectively ban union donations. Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the DNC Committee, says it's not accepting money from any corporations or political action committees - including unions. Both helped bankroll the 2008 convention. Unions alone gave $8.6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The biggest labor donors that year:

    Service Employees International Union, $1.3 million

    The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, $1.2 million

    American Fed. of State, County and Municipal Employees, $1 million

    Communications Workers of America, $873,791

    Sheet Metal Workers Union, $820,000

    Teamsters Union, $786,110

    Laborers Union, $702,800

    Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, $688,600

    Machinists and Aerospace Workers, $684,250

    National Air Traffic Controllers Association, $626,180 Jim Morrill

As the awarding of contracts for the Democratic National Convention gets under way in earnest, Charlotte-area union groups are making it clear to convention organizers that they want those jobs.

Nonunion businesses say they, too, want their share of work. And some say they are watching convention planners closely, to see who gets what.

The heightened vigilance from both sides shows how the convention already is casting a national spotlight on North Carolina's status as the least-unionized state in the nation.

Organizers of next September's convention say they'll be fair to everybody.

"Our priority from the beginning has been to both maximize opportunities for both local employment and local job opportunities, as well as opportunities for folks within organized labor," said convention CEO Steve Kerrigan.

It all reflects the delicate balance that convention planners must achieve for various constituencies - and that includes organized labor, historically a key base of the Democratic party.

"We don't want it all; we just want to feel like we're getting our share," said Bonnie Overman, president of the local affiliate of Communication Workers of America.

Charlotte's contract to host the DNC calls for using union labor when available. Firms hiring nonunion workers must pay the "prevailing local wage," which officials say is being worked out.

The Democratic National Convention Committee has awarded six contracts, worth a combined $7 million. Of those, one went to a unionized firm.

In addition, the host committee hired a local union business for printing contracts. Consolidated Press in Charlotte has printed business cards, buttons, tickets to the kickoff rally and other items, said owner Tim Mullaney.

In meetings and conversations in recent months with key organizers, Overman and other area union leaders have touted the types of jobs their ranks could fill during the convention - from working backstage at Time Warner Cable Arena, to unloading food trucks, to creating those big state signs that identify delegations.

Convention organizers say unions aren't the only groups they're consulting. "We're reaching out to the community across the board, not just organized labor," Kerrigan said.

But in Charlotte and beyond, advocates of North Carolina's status as a right-to-work state are keeping a keen eye on who is getting convention jobs.

Last week, Ritz-Carlton hotel officials denied a report on conservative blogs that their workers would be furloughed during the convention, and replaced with out-of-state union workers. The Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation stepped in, offering free legal help to anyone "prevented to work" during the convention. The 43-year-old nonprofit works to raise awareness of the right-to-work law and protect employees from being pressured to join unions, spokesman Anthony Riedel said. Another site, called LaborUnionReport.com, sent out a wordplay poster with a little girl named Charlotte: "Union Bosses Won't Let Charlotte's Parents Work."

Nationally, unions have spent millions this year challenging Republican-led efforts to curtail union rights. In Wisconsin, public-employee unions staged a mass rally at the state Capitol in February, protesting a move to curtail their collective-bargaining rights. That measure eventually passed. Last week in Ohio, voters overturned a law that would have restricted union rights.

Charlotte labor leaders want their supporters to speak up, said Ted Russell, president of Teamsters Local 71 in Charlotte. "Why is 'union' a bad word? Southern mentality," said Russell, whose group represents 3,500 workers, mainly in transportation. "Long ago, unions came south, put people out on strike and left a bad taste in people's mouths. Sometimes that's hard to overcome. ... That's not the way we operate today."

Staff Writers Jim Morrill and Tim Funk contributed.

Smith: 704-358-5087

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