At first glance, the past week was a good one for the relationship between Democrats and the labor movement. In advance of Labor Day, the president and vice president issued proclamations supporting labor rights, and Tuesday saw three union heads speak to the Democratic National Convention, including United Auto Workers President Bob King in a prime-time speaking slot. But scratch the surface even a bit, and it’s clear that such gestures obscure a fraught relationship between a working-class movement on hard times and a party all too happy to abandon it at the drop of a hat.
There are few better symbols of this breakdown than the choice of Charlotte to host the Democratic convention. As my Post colleague Amy Gardner writes, North Carolina is “considered inhospitable to unions,” and Charlotte’s selection led several unions to refuse to donate to the convention. Not only is North Carolina a right-to-work state, with the lowest rate of union membership in the country, but it also is one of only two states where state and local governments are forbidden from negotiating with public-sector unions.
To be fair, there’s not much state or national Democrats can do about North Carolina’s right-to-work law — Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, and Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, won’t take on the law either. But Democrats could have used Charlotte to back up their pro-union rhetoric.
The city’s sanitation workers, who have been on the job seven days a week, up to 15 hours a day, ahead of and during the convention, are asking the city council to pass a “Municipal Workers Bill of Rights,” which would raise safety standards and wages and the right to at least “meet and confer” with management, allowing workers to make suggestions, even if they can’t negotiate. (See Salon’s Josh Eidelson for more.) National Democrats could have gotten behind this push.
“With just minimal effort,” argues Chris Townsend, Washington representative for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (known as the UE), “some pro-worker and pro-labor conditions might have been placed on the city and the business community as the ‘price’ for the convention.” If Charlotte refused, Democrats could easily have found a more union-hospitable city in a swing state to host their convention.
But Democratic leaders have done nothing. Even a few words of support for Charlotte’s workers seem verboten in the party. After Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz gave a speech trying to demonstrate the party’s commitment to labor, In These Times’s Mike Elk asked her about the Charlotte unions:
I caught up with Wasserman-Schultz afterward to ask whether she believes Charlotte public sector workers should have the right to voluntarily have union dues deducted from their paycheck. Wasserman-Schultz dodged the question, saying, “What I know is that Democrats are thrilled and excited about making sure that we put on the most open, accessible Democratic National Convention of any political convention in American history and that we have an opportunity to make sure for America’s workers that they have opportunity to be a part of the American Dream.”
Not exactly a rousing endorsement.
From a political perspective, supporting the Charlotte workers should be a no-brainer. Yes, labor won’t be voting for anyone else: “I am allowed no other choice in our profoundly corrupt and rigged system,” Townsend admitted. But with so few undecided voters, turnout in November is going to be crucial, and motivated unions have been key parts of the Democratic turnout machine in the past.
“A concrete gain for workers rights in Charlotte would certainly go a long way in motivating our members across the country,” said Ashaki Binta, a UE field organizer in Charlotte. “Ignoring our legitimate concerns certainly wouldn’t help.”
But really, Democrats should set aside politics and read the president’s own Labor Day proclamation:
The rights and benefits we enjoy today were not simply handed to working men and women; they had to be won. Brick by brick, America's labor unions helped raise the landmarks of middle-class security. . . . These are the victories that make our Nation's promise possible — the idea that if we work hard and play by the rules, we can make a better life for ourselves and our families.
I am committed to preserving the collective bargaining rights that helped build the greatest middle class the world has ever known. It is the fundamental right of every American to have a voice on the job, and a chance to negotiate for fair pay, safe working conditions, and a secure retirement. When we uphold these basic principles, our middle class grows and everybody prospers.
If only the president and his party followed his words.
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