Obama’s Choice of Charlotte a Slap in Face to Organized Labor

obama bomber jacketIn choosing Charlotte, North Carolina to host the 2012 Democratic National Convention, President Obama selected a city with no unionized hotels, a non-union convention center, and the least union membership of the four options. Last October, UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm wrote a letter to the Democratic National Committee, stating that Charlotte’s non-union hotels made it an unacceptable choice. Candidate Obama pledged to join UNITE HERE’s picket line at Chicago’s Congress Hotel if elected President – a promise he made no attempt to fulfill – but as President has increasingly courted corporate interests while ignoring labor’s needs.

While some attribute Obama’s decision to the importance of North Carolina and neighboring Virginia in the 2012 presidential race, another factor could also be at play. UNITE HERE has been waging the most aggressive union campaign ever against the Hyatt Hotel chain, owned by the Chicago-based Pritzker family. Penny Pritzker was the national finance chair of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. If Obama wanted to ensure ongoing Pritzker and corporate loyalty in 2012, choosing a city opposed by UNITE HERE and that only has non-union hotels sends a powerful message.

As most labor union leaders continue to publicly praise President Obama, it’s clear with each passing week that Obama feels he can actively court corporate America while taking labor support for granted. The President’s choice of non-union Charlotte is the latest example, as even the conservative Red State blog observed that Obama likely chose Charlotte “precisely because it is union-free.”

The President’s Message About Unions
Labor unions spent more than $125 million to help elect Democrats in 2008, and provided key financial support in 2010. This makes the Party’s decision to hold its national convention in non-union facilities a clear slap in organized labor’s face. As labor urges Americans to “Buy Union,” the President’s message is that promoting union workplaces is so unimportant that even the national Democratic Party has no obligation to do so.

Obama has also sent a message to unions about his lack of loyalty. He ignores that in 2008, when other unions were staying neutral or rallying for Hillary Clinton, UNITE HERE provided him critical support. In fact, UNITE HERE’s work in Nevada was critical to Obama’s comeback after his surprising defeat in New Hampshire, and the union helped Obama win Latino votes in multiple states.

The Obama years have been challenging for UNITE HERE. The union was forced to spend much of 2009 and 2010 fending off a hostile takeover by SEIU, and many of its leading hotel locals have been embroiled in a bitter contract fight with Starwood, the Hilton and other global hotel corporations. Meanwhile, business is down in casinos nationwide and in heavily unionized Las Vegas, which hurts UNITE HERE workers.

So Obama had a great opportunity to help boost UNITE HERE by choosing St. Louis or Minneapolis, which, as UNITE HERE President Wilhelm’s October 6, 2010 letter pointed out, were the only two among the DNC’s four finalist cities that “have the capacity to house a large portion of the delegates and other guests … in unionized hotels.”
Instead he chose the least unionized city of the four (Cleveland was the other finalist) as the city where Democratic Party delegates and others will spend millions of dollars.

Imagine the cheering among the Chicago-based Priztker family when they learned that Obama had snubbed their nemesis, UNITE HERE. They know that Obama could easily have picked a city of unionized hotels, and will no doubt reward the President by building his corporate support for the 2012 campaign.

Some will defend Obama on the grounds that choosing Charlotte will help him win North Carolina and Virginia, arguing that his re-election needs take priority over keeping unions happy. But such a view only exposes Obama’s bigger and oft-repeated falsehood that he is willing to sacrifice re-election in order to do the right thing.

Not even Bill Clinton was so focused on re-election as Barack Obama, whose selection of Bill Daley as chief of staff, former GE leader CEO Jeffrey Immelt to chair the new White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, and public apologies to corporate America reek of re-election politics. If Obama were really putting principles over a second term, he would not have chosen non-union Charlotte.

The President has long failed to publicly fight for labor’s interests. Yet SEIU, the AFL-CIO and other unions that heavily back the Democratic Party are still cheerleading for the President without getting anything for members in return.

randy shawThe fall of labor unions in the Obama era – reflected last week in SEIU’s staggering losses in 39 of 44 elections among 6600 workers employed by Catholic Healthcare Partners in Ohio, despite the employer not opposing unionization – was an avoidable tragedy. Maybe Obama’s selection of non-union Charlotte will be a wake up call for the labor movement, but history says otherwise.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Charlotte was also the most anti-gay city among the four finalists for the Democratic Convention, as this article in the Advocate explains.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron.


  1. The Mike Field says

    I am political conservative, not a liberal or a progressive. What has long been very clear to me is that Barack Obama has been following what I call the “White Obama” strategy. Much of what he has done has been intended court the “Reagan Democrat” and upper middle class white voters, who may be critical to his reelection prospects. Obama carried Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana and Ohio by less than insuperable margins in 2008.

    If Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee in 2012, he has a good chance of carrying Michigan in addition to the other states already mentioned. The arithmetic here is pretty clear. It means no second term.

    Just as an observer of the political scene, I find the kind of “rachet” politics at work here a little alarming. Particularly,the way the interests of disadvantaged minorities, and by association, all others who are undereducated or underemployed have been ignored is scandalous. I don’t know how you live on the South Side of Chicago for 25 years and not see this as an issue.

    Think about the health care reform bill. What it looks like to me is collection of “hobbyhorse” issues mostly of concern to middle- and upper- income families.

    Why is the idea of universal health insurance substantially financed by a payroll tax on employers who do not provide this benefit never talked about?

    Why does no one talk about how to create permanent full employment? This might wrong time to think about reaching that goal, but it might be the right time to get people thinking about the issue. One thing I do believe is that full employment will never be achieved through the work of market forces alone short of a situation like what existed during World War II. Many people object to the share of federal, state and local budgets that go to social welfare. Others decry the lack of social justice.

    The reality is, full employment, along with universal health insurance, would largely rectify both of these situations. You will never reduce social welfare costs or begin to improve on the social pathologies rife within American society without full employment.

    Without full employment, social justice will remain a phantasm no matter how much you spend. Nor, and I hate to break the news, will American society ever accept the idea of maintaining families without income at middle class level. If you want social “justice”, you’d better start to look at some way of achieving it other than hoping to create and maintain vast and vastly expensive systems of social ministrations doled out by public bureaucracies.

    The “White Obama” ideology ultimately is rooted in the idea that Scandinavian social democracy represents the ideal form of social organization. No surprise that Obama puts this idea ahead of any other. The Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago, where Obama chose to live his adult life, is the community in American where this idea has the greatest credence and influence.

    But Scandinavian social democracy will not work in America. Just get used to it, and find some pragmatic ways to deal with issues you are concerned about. Even if the answers come at the expense of your pipe dream of eventually creating the “ideal” society.

  2. Gary says

    I appreciate the sentiments of this article. I can only imagine the strategizing going on of all the vested political interests including the White House. I believe Obama would like to have done lots more to further progressive goals, but is faced with pragmatic reality. One can argue the past in hindsight, but we do need to look forward. Would I have liked a single payer health care system … sure. Was it doable … apparently not.

    I heartily support the union concept. Do I think that all unions do the best for the workers … sorry, but my experience is they have the same endemic challenges as our political system.

    Those who do well in any economy and political system should WANT to give back. What we see instead in our capitalist society is a built-in ethic of greed. I think that will have to change to moderate this selfish instinct that permeates society.

    Do I digress … perhaps. I’m just taking the 30,000 foot view.

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