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Union leaders support Obama despite tension with Democratic Party

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CHARLOTTE — Union leaders are still simmering about the Democratic Party’s choice of a nonunion city to host its national convention, but they are united with the party on one goal: defeating Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

As one union leader put it: “What choice do we have?”

The relationship between organized labor and the Democratic Party has long been complicated — sometimes tense, sometimes disappointing, often rewarding.

During this week’s convention, rank-and-file members have been visible at breakfast gatherings, in caucus meetings, on sidewalks and in the convention hall. On Tuesday, Vice President Biden appeared in a convention-hall skybox schmoozing with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. And the convention program included speaking parts for three union presidents, including the United Auto Workers’ Bob King, who was given a slot in prime time.

And yet hard feelings remain about holding this gathering in Charlotte, in a state considered inhospitable to unions. Several unions boycotted the convention or withheld donations to it.

“Quite honestly, it felt like a slap in the face, and we resented it — personally, I did,” said Ed Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Hill’s union did not contribute to the convention this year, and Hill did not come to Charlotte because he doesn’t like to stay in nonunion hotels.

Hill and Trumka met several weeks ago with Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to relay their feelings, and both said they felt heard on their concerns.

Some union leaders have been upset about President Obama’s decision to block a portion of the Keystone Pipeline and impose new regulations on the coal industry, with some union members openly worrying that the livelihoods of electrical workers and building tradesmen will be endangered.

Still, Obama held a 2 to 1 advantage over Romney among voters in union households in an August Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. The question now is whether union members are motivated enough to generate the kind of large turnout the Obama campaign is counting on in an election expected to be close.

Last week’s Republican National Convention helped, according to union leaders, who noted that speaker after speaker railed against organized labor and pledged support for measures that union leaders said were anti-labor, including a call for a national right-to-work law.

“I was shocked last week,” Trumka said. “The platform that the Republicans adopted is the most anti-worker, anti-union platform of any major policy in the history of this country.”

He and others also cited the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as Romney’s vice-presidential nominee. Ryan’s support of reforming Medicare and slashing federal spending does not sit well with rank-and-file workers, union leaders said.

Even though they don’t agree with all of the president’s policies, Trumka said he views the president as a friend of labor. In particular, Obama has earned favor with organized labor for orchestrating the bailout of the automobile industry, promoting worker training and opposing crackdowns against collective bargaining rights by several Republican governors in recent years.

“There’s a lack of enthusiasm for the convention, yes,” said Hill. “But I can tell you there’s no lack of enthusiasm for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. It’s two different issues. You discuss the issue of them going to Charlotte — it’s like your kids. You get angry at them, you take away the keys to the car, but you don’t shoot them. We are going to support the ticket. We are going to work very, very hard to get Barack Obama elected.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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