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Government, Politics & Issues

Future of the labor movement, and Obama's re-election, may be intertwined

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 3, 2012 - CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, brought the Missouri delegation to its feet Monday as he exhorted Democrats gathered for this week’s presidential convention to focus more on the vision that binds them together and less on the internal differences that at times threaten to split them apart.

Shouted Cleaver: “We are Democrats! We change things! We build things! We turn things around!”

The cheering audience at the convention’s first delegation breakfast at times drowned him out as Cleaver, who will speak to the entire convention Wednesday, cited the Democrats’ role in creating Social Security, Medicare, student loans and other government programs that help average Americans.

He and Missouri Democratic Party chairman Mike Sanders emphasized during their remarks that they had workers in mind. And on Labor Day, that message was just what alternate delegate Gary Otten wanted to hear.

As President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden spent Monday lauding union autoworkers in Michigan and Ohio, Otten of Shrewsbury was among a handful of St. Louis labor activists in Charlotte hoping for more pro-union talk at the Democratic National Convention.

As yet, they haven’t heard much of it.

Monday’s Labor Day parade in Charlotte, in which several Missouri labor members participated, was short (less than half an hour) and its route was not in the prime part of downtown near the key convention sites – unlike Sunday’s protest rally by various groups aligned with the Occupy movement.

DNC officials also didn’t mention labor during Monday morning’s convention kickoff press conference, and – unlike some other key groups who were highlighted – offered no statistics on the number of union members taking part as delegates.

(The Democratic convention's attendees include 5,556 delegates and 407 alternates. Half are women,  27 percent are African-Americans, 13 percent are Hispanics and 285 are currently enrolled students. )

Otten, an alternate with the Missouri delegation, is an official with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, one of several unions that have opted against assisting the convention this week with money, time or staff.

Referring to his union leaders, Otten explained, “I think at the international level, they’re pretty much offended.”

The reason? By choosing Charlotte, national Democratic leaders put their presidential convention in North Carolina, which is a right-to-work state – meaning it bans closed-union shops.  As a result, unions represent a fraction of the state’s workforce.

National labor leaders had pressed for one of three other cities competing to host the convention: St. Louis, Minneapolis and Cleveland, all three in states with higher percentages of union workers.

Labor showed its discontent via its pocketbook, shelling out far fewer dollars than for previous Democratic conventions. Although national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is slated to be in town part of the week, some other labor leaders – including some from Missouri – are intentionally staying away.

But some are showing up.  Later Monday, officials announced that Mary Kay Henry -- president of the Services Employees International Union -- will address the convention Tuesday night.

Labor delegates focus on what's at stake

But Missouri delegate Jeff Wright, president of the UAW local that represents workers at the Ford plant near Kansas City, contends that any such disagreements between Democratic officials and unions are minor compared to those with the Republican Party.

At the GOP convention in Tampa, said Wright, speaker after speaker made it obvious that Republicans “hate us.”

Obama, said Wright, clearly is a stronger advocate for labor than Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “Obama, he doesn’t choke on the word ‘union,’ “  Wright said. “That sold it for me.”

Wright also called for all unions to remember the stakes. “Missouri,” he said, “is a governor away from being Wisconsin,” where Republican Gov. Scott Walker has successfully curbed union rights for public employees. And Indiana, which also has had a large union presence, has seen its labor numbers rapidly dissipate in the wake of a new right-to-work law.

Joe Hunt of St. Louis, the recently retired national president of the Ironworkers, sits on the DNC’s rules committee. While acknowledging that some union leaders remain irked over Charlotte’s selection as the convention site, Hunt said, “I don’t think there’s a strain between us and the Democratic Party.”

“We still have the enthusiasm for the president,” Hunt said, “I think he’s been doing a good job.”

Hunt asserted that Obama hasn’t gotten enough credit for saving the nation from even worse economic times after the downturn suddenly hit in 2008, killing millions of jobs in a few months.

As for Wright, the Kansas City UAW official, he said labor needs to emphasize how it has helped improve the lives of average workers. “The 40-hour work week, paid holidays, sick leave, all were brought about by unions,” Wright said.

To those who say the labor movement is no longer needed, he said, “The working conditions would get a lot worse if we weren’t there.”

RNC launches new anti-Obama website

Reince Preibus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, headlined a counter-convention news conference Monday where he asserted that the nation’s economy will get worse if Obama stays in the White House.

Preibus and U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, were in Charlotte to unveil a new Republican web site targeting the president, called “Obamaisntworking.com.”

Standing in front of a backdrop that declared, “Obama Isn’t Working,”  Preibus said that “seven out of 10 people believe we’re not better off’’ than four years ago, before Obama took office.

Preibus predicted that the latest national jobs numbers, to be released Friday, will back up that view. “The pixie dust is gone,” the GOP chairman said.

At the Charlotte convention center, Democratic convention organizers said that the economic portrait painted by the president and his allies will show a nation that‘s continuing to improve. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, convention chairman, said Obama deserves credit as “a president who rescued the auto industry” and “who wants to build an economy from the middle out.”

Romney, the mayor contended, “wants to build an economy from the top down.”

Otten says he’s eager for labor to engage in that debate.

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