In 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.
The 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 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.
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