State’s union leaders see DNC convention as opportunity

Organized labor in right-to-work state will be in spotlight

lbonner@newsobserver.com cesmith@charlotteobserver.comAugust 31, 2012 

DNC_walkabout

New banners going up at Time Warner Cable Arena uptown Charlotte as the DNC draws near. Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

ROBERT LAHSER — rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Hosting a convention for a pro-union political party in one of the nation’s most anti-union states has its challenges.

Some labor unions threatened to boycott the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte next week. Some made a point of holding back money. Despite the loud grumbling from labor’s national names, North Carolina union leaders are eager to use the convention to highlight for a broad audience the struggles facing organized labor in the South.

Southern labor organizers will meet at a Charlotte church on Labor Day, away from the official celebration, to share ideas on sparking a regional movement to advance workers’ rights.

For Keith Ludlum, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1208 in the Bladen County town of Tar Heel, Charlotte is an ideal place to bring attention to the threats facing organized labor.

“It does allow us a platform where we can talk about this on a national level,” he said.

Southern states have the lowest rates of union membership in the country. North Carolina sat at the very bottom last year, with a rate of less than 3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unions around the country have had a tough time in the past two years, but organized labor has a history of being particularly weak in North Carolina, a “right to work” state where workers cannot be required to join unions in workplaces that have them.

A focus of the workers’ meeting will be the state’s ban on collective bargaining for unions that represent state or city employees. North Carolina has had the ban for decades, but other state legislatures moved in the last two years to weaken public sector unions.

One of the biggest battles labor lost this year was the failed campaign to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who cut collective bargaining rights for nearly all public workers. Indiana passed a right-to-work law this year, becoming the first state in more than a decade to do so.

Unions are fighting against forces that are making them irrelevant, said Francis De Luca, president of the conservative Civitas Institute.

“People are more interested in jobs than in union jobs,” he said.

Southern states, dominated by Republican politicians who use their antagonism toward unions as points of pride, are hardly fertile ground for organized labor. At the Republican National Convention this week, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley referred to “bullying union bosses” that President Barack Obama “counts as political allies.”

Though some unions are keeping the Democratic National Convention at arm’s length, others, including the Service Employees International Union, are publicizing their participation.

Among those pleased that the convention is in Charlotte is James Andrews, state AFL-CIO president, a member of the convention steering committee and a delegate.

Union members are working on convention venues as they have in previous years, he said. And for focusing members on serious issues, the advantages of a convention are hard to match.

“To have 65,000 people coming into your house has to be exciting,” Andrews said.

For local unions, convention preparations have meant steady work. Charlotte’s contract to host the DNC calls for using union labor when available.

Of its 500 members, between 50 and 60 landed jobs retrofitting the arena, said Scott Thrower, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 379 Charlotte.

Three novices also got work, learning some of the trade, Thrower said.

“It’s been a good opportunity for the local and the union to be able to spread the word, what the unions can do for folks and their families,” Thrower said.

“I have never seen unions talked about as much as they have in the last year with the Democratic National Convention coming, and that’s been a good thing for us to get the word out in the public.”

Organized labor scored a huge win in the state four years ago when workers at the Smithfield Foods slaughterhouse in Tar Heel voted for a union. The union victory came after a 15-year fight that included lawsuits, a national boycott and charges that the company harassed workers.

That long, bitter fight could have happened in any state these days, said Ludlum of UFCW. The hostility toward unions experienced in the South is spreading through the nation.

“The battle we had to obtain representation is a battle we see all across this country now,” he said.

That’s why this election is critical for both sides, Ludlum said. “We’re going further downwards or we’re going to turn upwards and have a better future – not just for organized labor, for middle-class Americans.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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