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Despite some concerns, union members see DNC work after all

Labor groups are handling DNC work, despite concerns from national union leaders

By Celeste Smith and Lynn Bonner
cesmith@charlotteobserver.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Thanks to the Democratic National Convention, Charlotte area union members are setting up lights, running cable lines and driving trucks that haul equipment in and out of Time Warner Cable Arena.

“Our board here and our membership here are excited … about the amount of work they are involved in right now,” says James Andrews, president of the N.C. chapter of the AFL-CIO.

The work and exposure is pumping new energy into local organized labor, union leaders say.

But on a national level big labor groups aren’t happy, and have said they won’t support the convention as they have in years past.

Several building-trade unions were turned off by the Democrats’ choice of Charlotte for the convention, citing North Carolina’s status as the least-unionized state in the country.

Labor donations to the Charlotte convention aren’t expected to match that of the 2008 convention in Denver, when large labor unions contributed $8 million.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told executive council members in a letter last month that the organization is investing instead in grass-roots efforts promoting labor rights. Nationally, unions have spent millions this year challenging Republican-led efforts to curtail unions.

“We won’t be buying skyboxes … or bringing a big staff contingent to the convention,” Trumka wrote.

But there are signs that big labor groups won’t stay angry: “It’s like a block of ice that gets into the sunlight and begins to melt,” said Andrews, of the state AFL-CIO. “Warming up to it.”

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was one of the featured speakers at a national labor rally in Philadelphia this month.

And union members will fill the delegate ranks in Charlotte. They’ll make up about 16 percent of delegates, according to the AFL-CIO, which is hosting a gathering for labor delegates during convention week.

‘Right-to-work’ state

It’s not surprising that organized labor will have a presence at the convention, given unions’ long history as a key base of the Democratic party. And it’s not like unions are welcome in the Republican Party.

In her Tuesday night speech at the Republican National Convention meeting in Tampa, Fla., S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley recounted being at the new Boeing facility in North Charleston when a new plane rolled out, “surrounded by 6,000 nonunion employees.”

“We deserve a president who won’t sacrifice American jobs and American workers to pacify the bullying union bosses he counts as political allies,” Haley said.

Southern states have the lowest rates of union membership in the country. North Carolina was at the very bottom last year, with a rate of less than 3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Organized labor always has had a tough time in North Carolina, a “right-to-work” state where workers cannot be required to join unions in workplaces that have them.

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.

Steady work for unions

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

Scott Thrower, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 379 Charlotte, said that of his 500 members, between 50 and 60 landed jobs retrofitting the arena. 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 (about) what 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.”

Jobs for members of Teamsters Local 71 include driving the trucks that move equipment out of the arena, President Ted Russell said. He said the group’s northwest Charlotte union hall is being used as a “base camp” of sorts for convention organizers, who are using the space for a phone bank and to make signs.

Stage hands and other technicians also are getting work, said David Garretson, speaking for the local International Association of Theatre and Stage Employees union. “On a daily basis, we are dispatching on average 200 people on DNC-related events,” he said.

Charlotte members of Communication Workers of America Local 3603 worked on AT&T’s Wi-Fi upgrades to convention venues, according to President Bonnie Overman.

More than 300 members in CWA’s broadcast division will work the convention, doing behind-the-camera technical work and other jobs, national spokesman Chuck Porcari said.

Smith: 704-358-5087
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