In the election in N.C.'s 10th Congressional District, it's all about the economy.
As U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., tries for a third term representing a district pummeled by a seemingly endless series of plant closings, he and Democratic opponent Daniel Johnson face voters seeking answers for their most basic needs.
Lately, the now-familiar topic has a new twist: labor unions.
Traditionally a dirty word in this district of conservative individualists, unions could be part of the solution to job woes, some people say. The concept moved from private conversation to a public debate last week as the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO held dueling rallies over a proposed federal law that would make it easier for unions to form.
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The Employee Free Choice Act would let workers organize if more than half have signed cards agreeing to join a union, bypassing the need for secret-ballot elections. The measure passed in the U.S. House, but is stalled in the Senate.
The two local rallies concerning the bill couldn't have been more different.
The chamber's event railed against the EFCA and the threat of unionization to local businesses. Most attendees wore suits and clapped quietly.
Across town, the AFL-CIO rally celebrated unions as a way to help workers survive in an uncertain economy. A packed room at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel at times resembled a Pentecostal church service, with mostly blue-collar workers waving signs and cheering in unison.
As one of the featured speakers at the chamber's rally, McHenry sided with businesses, but also tried to avoid alienating workers.
A placard in front of the speaker's podium at the chamber rally said, “Business vs. Labor Rally. Stop the Union Agenda!”
But McHenry was careful to say the issue centers on worker privacy. “It's all about preserving the right to a secret-ballot election,” he said. “Workers should have the ability to make a choice without intimidation.”
The National Federation of Independent Businesses, which actively opposes the EFCA, donated $1,000 to McHenry's re-election campaign.
At the pro-labor rally, organizers decried McHenry's representation of workers and the chamber's opposition to the EFCA. They said that, instead of opening workers to intimidation by union organizers, the bill would actually protect them from pressure by employers to reject unions.
From the back of the room, a man said, “Go to Caldwell County. Those (furniture) workers who got laid off, they wish like hell they would've got a union in 10 years ago.”
“The chamber's rally is not about workplace democracy,” said MaryBe McMillan, N.C. AFL-CIO secretary/treasurer and a Hickory native. “It's about distracting workers from the real issues.”
Johnson, McHenry's opponent, didn't attend either rally, though the chamber invited him. He did not return several phone calls by the Observer.
Catawba County Chamber of Commerce President Danny Hearn said he recently had lunch with Johnson to discuss the chamber's top concerns, including the EFCA.
He said Johnson told him he hadn't formed a position on the bill.
Regardless of who wins the district's election, unions could be a growing force in local economic politics among both native and immigrant workers.
McMillan said her group is getting more inquiries from people interested in organizing. “I think the chamber senses that,” she said.