The Democratic National Convention is less than a week away, and liberals are getting fired up. But at least one of the party's key constituencies isn’t quite so excited.
That group is organized labor.
Last July’s announcement that the convention would be held in the staunchly anti-union city of Charlotte, North Carolina—the least unionized state in the country—set off a firestorm of protest in the labor movement. A year later, dissatisfaction still simmers, and there's a case to be made for an unprecedented move. The message is simple: maybe labor should sit this one out.
To a large extent, politics is about resources. How an organization decides to deploy those it has available says a lot about its values and priorities. So why would labor want to channel limited funds into bolstering a local economy organized around avowedly anti-union principles? By opting for North Carolina as a convention destination, rather than a swing state with stronger union infrastructure such as Ohio or Wisconsin, the Democratic Party created an entirely avoidable disaster.
Unions have already scaled back their involvement in the convention. If the labor movement decided to altogether avoid devoting members' time or money to attending, the Democrats could not claim they hadn't been warned. The party did not seek union input or prioritize supporting organized workers when selecting the convention location, and as soon as the news went public labor pointed to some glaring shortcomings: North Carolina is a so-called “right to work” state; Charlotte has virtually no unions among its building trades, construction firms, or service workers; and Charlotte has not one unionized hotel.
Four years ago, labor contributed heavily to the Democratic National Convention in Denver, including a $100,000 donation from the AFL-CIO and several individual union contributions of over $1 million.
This year, union members looked askance when the Democratic Party approached them to help fund its gathering, and such support has reduced to a trickle. As Politico reported, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, "We won’t be buying skyboxes, hosting events other than the labor delegates’ meeting or bringing a big staff contingent to the convention."
If the relationship between Democrats and labor was already sore, the convention has rubbed salt in the wound. Unions have felt that the Obama administration has done too little to stand with them in places such as Wisconsin or to champion pro-worker legislation nationally. Republican obstruction in Congress hasn’t made it easy for the White House to push labor's legislative agenda. But the lack of action on the legislative front renders symbolic acts like the choice of a convention location all the more important.
A More Strategic Political Investment
Tensions between labor and the Democrats have been brewing for a while. In the 2010 midterm elections, unions' difficulty in generating excitement was part of that year's fabled "enthusiasm gap." In the 1990s, Bill Clinton antagonized erstwhile labor allies by failing to push forward legislation that would have banned businesses from permanently replacing striking workers, a key union priority at the time. Clinton showed no such reticence in passing NAFTA.
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Arguably, President Obama has followed a similar pattern. On the campaign trail, he raised expectations by speaking the language of workers’ rights. Yet his administration, once in place, did not make the labor-backed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) a priority, and that bill suffered a quiet death. Subsequently, Obama implemented a wage freeze for federal workers and pushed some controversial "free trade" deals of its own (including one with Colombia, where union organizers are routinely murdered).
By walking away from the Democratic National Convention, labor would communicate to would-be suitors that union support must be earned, not taken for granted.
To advocate such a stance is not to rehash the stale debate about whether labor should break with the Democrats. With the election cycle in full swing, there is no question that unions will need to pitch in to ward off attacks by rabidly anti-union Republicans. Nevertheless, there is a live question about how labor can best spend its limited resources. Sitting out the convention would free up funds for embattled worker-friendly candidates and to targeted ballot initiatives drives across the country. It would signal a more strategic approach to electoral action: instead of supporting the Democratic Party from the top-down, unions could spend time and money supporting candidates that would be the strongest champions for working people.
Worth the Risk?
The counter-argument? Internal disagreements between Democratic constituencies must be set aside to focus on the larger project of winning the election. The national conventions are theater, and labor’s absence from Charlotte would create a distracting sideshow. This, the argument goes, would weaken the Democrats at a critical time, courting a Romney win that could spell doom for what remains of organized labor.
For such reasons, some union leaders have taken more conciliatory public stances in recent weeks, stepping back from their initial anger. In July, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’(IBEW) president Edwin Hill told National Journal that unions need to put the convention kerfuffle behind them: “There’s all kinds of issues laying out there that we can’t seem to wrap our hands around because of all of the infighting, and we need to get back on track.”
Some pro-labor analysts, however, support a more antagonistic stance. "I think it's a smart—and necessary—strategy for labor to withhold its support from the convention," says Dorian Warren, associate professor of political science at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. "Along with African Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and women, organized labor is a so-called captured constituency in the Democratic Party. That is, the Party takes all of these groups for granted because they know blacks, or unions, won't defect and vote Republican in significant numbers. So Democrats have few incentives to work hard to represent their interests."
"The only leverage labor has is to threaten to withhold resources," Warren explains. "That means support for delegates, money to support Democratic candidates, and, most of all, ground troops on Election Day."
"Of all the captured core constituencies, only organized labor has this leverage," he adds. "But if the strategy of withholding support worked, it would increase the power of all progressive forces that are forced by our two-party electoral system to work with the Democrats."
Whether unions decide to make a pointed display with their absence in Charlotte, or whether they choose to make nice for the sake of Party unity, a shift from top-down support for the Democratic National Committee would mark a positive turn. A realignment of resources to true champions of working people will convey an insistence that organized labor be regarded as a loyal ally rather than as a virtual captive with no place else to turn.