WASHINGTON — When the Democratic Party imposed strict curbs on its 2012 convention fundraising — barring money from typical givers like corporations and lobbyists in hopes of diminishing the influence of special interests — it carved out a key exception: labor unions.
Unions have been one of the most reliable givers to Democratic convention fundraising. But with less than a month to go before the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., many unions that have been steadfast donors are now declining to fork over their cash.
The falloff in union support throws a kink into the Democrats' final drive to raise $37 million, a push that has already been hampered by the party's restrictions on large individual contributions and ban on corporate cash.
Unions, meanwhile, are aiming to assert their political autonomy in a rally Saturday in Philadelphia, which organizers say will highlight concerns of working families they believe both parties have not sufficiently addressed.
Convention fundraising, which is not subject to the strict contribution limits that candidates and political parties face, has long been powered by corporations and deep-pocketed individuals. In addition to banning corporate and lobbyist donations, Democrats have limited individual contributions to $100,000. (They have, however, set up a separate account for overhead expenses that does accept corporate money.)
Labor unions poured $8.5 million into the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, according to Federal Election Commission filings, much of it in six- and seven-figure increments. In addition to unions, the party also allows unlimited convention donations from other nonprofit groups, such as family foundations.
But many labor leaders said they have little desire to cut a big check this year, in part because union coffers have shrunk, but also because North Carolina is the least unionized state in the nation. A particular sticking point: Charlotte, which will be housing scores of Democratic delegates, has no unionized hotels.
"The Democratic convention hasn't been a focus of ours. I see it as a three-day infomercial," said Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents transit workers.
The union would've been more inclined to be involved in the convention, he said, "had it been in a town that is more hospitable to the labor movement."
Democratic officials declined to say how much they have raised, but insist they will have the resources for the political bash. A number of national labor groups have pledged financial support, including the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers, and additional fundraising help has come from small donors.
"With three weeks left to go, and monetary contributions from more than 85 times more individuals than the convention in Denver, our grass-roots fundraising has exceeded expectations," said Suzi Emmerling, spokeswoman for the convention host committee.
Saturday's rally in Philadelphia highlights a new approach to electoral politics by many in the labor movement. Instead of funneling money directly to candidates and political parties, some organizations are keeping their resources in-house for organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts.
TheAFL-CIOand International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which have spearheaded the rally, together gave more than $1.1 million for the Democrats' 2008 convention. This year, theAFL-CIOwill make no "major monetary contributions" to Charlotte; the IBEW is sending no money at all.
Union officials admit that they were irked by the party's choice to locate this year's convention in Charlotte, but they say the purpose of their event has evolved to make a broader appeal for workers' rights. The unions will ask candidates of all political stripes to sign a "Second Bill of Rights" — an enumeration of labor's priorities such as full employment and collective bargaining rights.
The rally will not be completely divorced from party politics. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, will attend.
"In recent months we've had a lovers' quarrel with the Democratic Party over some aspects of the convention," said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the rally. "We are very pleased that Debbie Wasserman Schultz will be speaking."
The Charlotte convention also has the support of a number of local labor leaders, including James Andrews, the president of the North Carolina chapter of theAFL-CIO, who serves on the convention's host committee.
"Whatever the reason, national unions are not contributing at the level they have at past conventions," Andrews said.
"It makes a steeper hill to climb, but I'm so excited that this will be more open than any other convention I've attended."
Democrats say their grass-roots fundraising focus and numerous gatherings open to the public give their convention a more egalitarian feel than their Republican counterpart. The GOP's convention, set a week earlier in Tampa, Fla., will not have public events. Republicans have accepted corporate cash and unlimited individual contributions.
"With no opportunities for the public to attend, the RNC will cater to special interest groups and wealthy donors," said Melanie Roussell, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.
James Davis, a spokesman for the Republican convention, countered that the GOP will make extensive use of social media to build a "convention without walls." He added that some events around the convention are accessible to the public.
Matea Gold in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.