Hug From Thugs Replace Union Cash at Convention

The North Carolina AFL-CIO won’t be a sponsor of next week’s Democratic National Convention -- though the labor organization will set up a booth to let visitors “hug a union thug.”

It is among many labor groups that have scaled back their once-reliable financial support for the party’s quadrennial gathering, even as they pledge to help elect Democrats.

“We decided we’d rather connect with the grassroots,” said Jim Spellane, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO affiliated International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “That’s where our strength is.”

Union leaders were upset when the Democrats set their convention in North Carolina, where 2.9 percent of employees are union members, the lowest rate in the nation. Some have also voiced frustration that President Barack Obama hasn’t done enough to push jobs as unemployment remains higher than 8 percent and signed free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama over their objections.

Four years ago, unions gave more than $8 million for the Democratic convention in Denver, according to financial disclosure reports. The party spent $59 million on the convention, a Federal Election Commission filing showed. The AFL-CIO hosted panels and rallies along with a reception at Coors Field, home of Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies.

‘Thug’ Booth

This year, rather than sponsoring convention events, the North Carolina State AFL-CIO said it would have a “Hug-a-Union-Thug” booth at a concert affiliated with the convention. The organization says in a statement it hopes union members offering free hugs will help erase stereotypes.

“The Hug-a-Thug booth is part of a broad, long-term initiative by America’s unions to be a voice for all working people,” according to the statement.

Other unions will host a panel discussion on health-care policy. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and James Hoffa, leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, will be in Charlotte to meet workers, though haven’t contributed cash and aren’t scheduled to address the convention, according to spokesmen.

“We just made a decision as an organization to scale it back this year,” Galen Munroe, a spokesman for the 1.4 million-member Teamsters said in an interview.

Fundraising for the convention, which starts Sept. 4, is short of its goal with little money donated by unions, said James Andrews, a member of the convention’s steering committee and president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO.

Soliciting Unions

Democrats had courted donations from major U.S. unions, including the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO federation, and gave labor representatives a tour of the convention site in April.

Some unions balked at contributing after Charlotte was named the host city. The AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department said last year that it wouldn’t take part because hotels used by candidates and delegates lack union workers. Democratic conventions dating back to 1992 were held in states where workers are required to join a union at companies with collective-bargaining agreements. North Carolina, a so-called “right-to-work” state, prohibits such agreements.

Edwin Hill, the leader of electrical workers’ union, said in March that the location played a large role in his decision to sit out the convention.

“Why would we want to go there and spend our money in a place that doesn’t even want us?” Hill said in the March interview. Spillane, the union’s spokesman, confirmed Aug. 28 that Hill won’t attend.

Focus Resources

Trumka said last month that the reduced convention activity had “nothing to do” with the North Carolina location. Jeff Hauser, an AFL-CIO spokesman, said in an interview Aug. 28 that Trumka would attend, though the organization will not contribute money in order to focus its resources elsewhere.

Obama won North Carolina less than half a percentage point four years ago, becoming the first Democrat to win the state since 1976. With 15 electoral votes, it is one of about a dozen states that Democratic and Republican strategists say may determine the outcome of the election and polls show Obama in a close contest with Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee.

Union leaders said while convention support has scaled back, some employee groups are supporting Obama’s re-election. Trumka has vowed to have more than 400,000 volunteers campaign.

“We will be doing the things we do; we will be building structure to try to get the president elected,” Trumka told reporters in July. “We unequivocally support him and his re-election efforts.”

Party Faithful

With television networks providing less prime-time coverage and the parties scripting more elements of the conventions, there is no need to spend money to win over the party faithful, said Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

“That means you don’t spend it at the convention holding a party,” Wayne said.

The Charlotte host committee, operating under a party-imposed ban on corporate donations, was still raising cash less than a week before the start. Andrews declined to say how much had been raised.

“We will continue to work to put this convention together,” Andrews said in an interview. “But we still have a little ways to go.”

His union hadn’t contributed either, instead focusing on getting volunteers to work for Obama and other “worker-friendly candidates’ on the state and local level.

SEIU Donations

Suzi Emmerling, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte host committee, said unions have contributed money, though she declined to say which groups and how much.

‘‘We have raised the funds we need to host a great convention,’’ Emmerling wrote in an e-mail. A representative from the Democratic National Committee didn’t return a message seeking comment.

One of the contributors is the Service Employees International Union, with about 2.1 million health-care, government and food-service workers, which will hold a forum at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Museum to discuss health-care issues with speakers including Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, as well as Victoria Kennedy, widow of former U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Mark McCullough, a spokesman for the Service Employees, said it ‘‘gave some money,’’ without specifying how much. The union split from the AFL-CIO in 2005.

The AFL-CIO would rather spend on field work and getting people out to vote, said Hauser, the group’s spokesman.

‘‘This will get people to play a role in the political process and stay involved,’’ Hauser said. ‘‘That will create a resource for workers in 2012, but also in 2013 and 2014.’’

(Corrects spelling of union spokesman in third paragraph of story published Aug. 31, 2012.)
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