‘Hug a Union Thug’: Labor puts on happy face at DNC

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There are many reasons for labor unions to be a bit unhappy with the Obama administration leading up to the Democratic convention. After all, Democrats decided to hold the convention in a right-to-work state, where organizing is more difficult. And President Obama was relatively silent during protests in Wisconsin that sought to restore collective bargaining rights for public workers.

“He talks a pretty good game, but he has not been good, and he hasn’t done what he’s said” about labor, said Julius Getman, a labor expert at the University of Texas School of Law.

The president also didn’t support the National Labor Relations Board after it challenged Boeing’s plans to move some operations from Washington state to a nonunion state. His lack of support was “stunning,” Getman said.

Indeed, many unions have decided not to give money to the convention this year, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said his union wouldn’t be bringing a big staff contingent.


But those negative feelings toward Democrats were hard to find at the convention on Labor Day, as union members filled the streets at a festival, expressing support for the president. AFL-CIO members were so exuberant they were hugging passers-by as part of a “Hug a Union Thug” event, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Service Employees International Union handed out swag, while complimenting the president.

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“Barack Obama has committed himself to the notion that the middle class is what built this country, what made this country great, and that unions are an integral role in sustaining and nurturing the middle class,” said Jeremy Sprinkle, communications director of the North Carolina AFL-CIO. Behind him, AFL-CIO members hugged people walking by. “He’s a national spokesperson in that sense; that’s something we never had during the previous administration.”

Sprinkle added that one of Obama’s first actions upon taking office was signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which gave women who had received unequal pay at work the right to compensation.

“He did everything that he could, and was stopped every step of the way,” said John Bogney, an electrician and member of the IBEW from Houston who also supports Obama.

Even those members who said they think Obama could have done better on labor issues said they don’t blame him.

“I’d probably give him a 7 out of 10 maybe; he could do a little bit better. But it’s not all his fault,” said Bob Krebs, who works for the IBEW in Charlotte. “He’s not getting a lot of cooperation.”

“I would give him a B,” said Teresa Law, an SEIU member from Springfield, Ohio, who was fighting her way through the crowds of CarolinaFest, the convention’s outdoor fair, wearing a bright purple SEIU shirt. “But I really don’t think he could have done anything better. Congress has fought him in every step.”


Despite Obama’s imperfections, Law said, she was still canvassing for him, venturing out into 100-degree heat to mobilize voters. Union mobilization was key to many victories for Democrats in 2008, including the reelection of Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada.

PHOTOS: Scenes from the DNC

“You don’t knock doors in a hundred degree heat if you’re not excited,” she said.

Still, there were some angry workers to be found outside the perimeter of Charlotte’s crowded city center, at a rally at a Baptist church to organize labor in the South. People wearing bright yellow United Food and Commercial Workers shirts packed the pews, and banners about solidarity plastered the walls.


Organizers handed out an open letter to Obama and other Democratic leaders warning them about the prevalence of poor working conditions in Charlotte, adding that North Carolina “has been cited by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization for its violations of international labor standards.”

As panelists talked about their struggles organizing in the South, some workers stood and began calling for a third party -- a labor party –- that would stand up for workers’ rights, as Obama did not.

“I would give Obama an F,” said Kevin Dugan, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World who was sitting outside the church in one of a circle of folding chairs that said “solidarity” on the back. “He’s done nothing for labor; he said almost nothing during the Wisconsin thing, and during the recall for [Gov.] Scott Walker, he didn’t do anything.”

In 2008, Dugan voted for Obama and also did some canvassing for him. This time, he won’t vote for Obama or Romney, he said. He plans to write in a friend’s name on the ballot.


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