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 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 casts 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 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 three contracts to six firms, 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, owner Tim Mullaney said.
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 keep a keen eye on who gets 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.
Against that backdrop, 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."
A painful history in state
Historians credit North Carolina's nonunion labor atmosphere with the rapid growth of the textile industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That textile-mill boom fueled Charlotte's industrial growth.
North Carolina's labor history took a violent turn in 1929, when the Gastonia police chief and a striker were shot and killed in separate incidents related to a union strike at Loray Mill.
State lawmakers enacted the right-to-work law nearly two decades later, restricting the power of organized labor. Under the law, workers can't be forced to join unions or pay fees. It's also illegal in North Carolina for unions to bargain on behalf of public workers. Only Virginia has a similar law.
Today, about 3.2 percent of North Carolina's workers are organized - the lowest union membership rate in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Critics say the state is hostile to unions and also note that Charlotte doesn't have a unionized hotel. Twelve building-trade unions announced in August they would boycott the Charlotte convention.
Denver - capital of Colorado, another right-to-work state - heard similar grumblings leading up to the Democratic convention there in 2008. One hotel unionized a few months before the convention. It's not clear the same will happen at a Charlotte hotel or if there will be more unionization in the state. But UNC Charlotte historian David Goldfield doesn't expect that to matter. "The unions are going to come to Charlotte in 2012," Goldfield said. "They have no other place to go. ... In the end, they will come here, as they came to Denver." Active and retired union members made up one-fourth of the 4,200 delegates in Denver.
James Andrews, president of the state AFL-CIO, also expects strong union support at the convention. He's part of the local host group's steering committee for the convention.
The unions' boycott doesn't mean "our members in North Carolina and across the country will not be delegates," Andrews said.
Staying in the know
Area labor groups get an email whenever projects go out to bid, said Overman with the Communication Workers union. "We want to know, obviously, and they've been great at letting us know."
That's separate from the online vendor directory convention organizers have promoted as a way to connect with businesses. Organizers say while they use that directory primarily, they also send a separate alert about bids to businesses, local contractors and minority and women-owned groups.
Mullaney, the unionized Charlotte printer, hopes to get the job creating the signs for delegations, in addition to the other work his shop has been awarded. Even if his company needs additional help, Mullaney said, he can call in nearby union members who know how to run its printing machines.
Staff Writers Jim Morrill and Tim Funk contributed.