Why the Dems chose Charlotte
Charlotte, N.C., promotes itself as one of the most anti-union cities in America, which seems to be a virtue in the eyes of top Democrats, explains.
WHEN THE Democrats announced the selection of Charlotte, N.C., as the host city for the 2012 Democratic National Convention (DNC) last year, First Lady Michelle Obama sent a press release to e-mail subscribers, proclaiming the First Couple's affinity for the city. "The Queen City," she wrote, "is home to innovative, hardworking folks with big hearts and open minds. And of course, great barbecue."
At first glance, this might appear to be no more than populist political fluff, intended to charm voters by invoking the president's taste in blue-collar food. But her statement, with its emphasis on "innovative" and "hardworking," holds special meaning for business leaders in Charlotte and North Carolina. For them, "hardworking" invokes North Carolina's extremely high rate of industrial efficiency in comparison to other states throughout the country.
This is a point of pride for the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. In promotional literature designed to lure corporations to relocate to the Charlotte region, the Chamber brags that North Carolina "is the third most productive of the nation's top 20 industrialized states. For each dollar of labor cost, $5.04 of value added is produced by N.C. workers..."
One reason for this, the pamphlet explains, is the fact that "lost work time due to accidents and labor disputes is minimal." The pamphlet goes on to herald the state's anti-union environment, declaring, "North Carolina, which has one of the nation's highest percent of manufacturing employment, has one of the nation's lowest union memberships."
The anti-unionism evinced in this statement explains much about the Democrats' decision to host the convention in Charlotte. In broad historical terms, the selection of Charlotte as the host city for the DNC--like the Republican's selection of Tampa, Fla., for the RNC--relates to the South's rising importance as a center for financial and industrial capital.
Importantly, the South's rising economic prominence--linked historically to the region's ability to ensure cheap, union-free labor--has led to concomitant rise in the region's political importance. As Democrats have recognized, their future political success will likely depend, to increased degree, on their ability to appeal to Southern business interests and win the votes of southern states in the Electoral College.
This task is of particular significance for Democrats in light of the fact that, for the past 40 years, Southern elites have been reliable supporters of the Republican Party, particularly in national elections. Since Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, the South has overwhelmingly voted for Republican presidential candidates with just a few exceptions.
In fact, Democratic presidential candidates won one or more Southern states in just three of seven presidential elections between 1980 and 2004. These exceptions came in 1992 and 1996, when Bill Clinton won six Southern states in both years, and in 1980 when Jimmy Carter won his home state of Georgia.
By hosting their convention in Charlotte, the Democrats, no doubt, are hoping to further their efforts to reverse this trend. Importantly, the Democrats' Southern strategy for this upcoming election is designed to build off Obama's 2008 wins in North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida.
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VIEWED FROM another perspective, the Democrats' decision to host the DNC in North Carolina represents what Rick Sloan, communications director for the International Association of Machinists union, described as "a calculated affront" to organized labor on the part of the Democratic Party.
It isn't just that Democrats chose a right-to-work state to host the convention; they chose what is in all likelihood the most reactionary, anti-union, anti-worker state in the entire country. Notably, in 2011, North Carolina had the lowest union density in the entire nation with just 4.1 percent of its workforce represented by union contracts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Indeed, anti-unionism lies at the very heart of North Carolina's economic and political system. As Marxist academic Phillip J. Wood has written, the state's model for economic development is characterized, above all else, by the maintenance of an "above-average rate of surplus labor." This allows the state's employers to maintain a competitive advantage over capitalists in other areas in the United States, including other areas in the South. It also enhances the ability of the state's industrial planners to foster economic growth by attracting outside corporations to relocate to the area.
Naturally, union busting and union prevention have historically been key components of the state's efforts to maintain high rates of surplus-labor extraction. During the post-New Deal era, North Carolina has been particularly successful (even in comparison to other Southern states) in using legal measures to thwart unionization. To this end, North Carolina passed its first "right-to-work" law in 1947, the same year that the Taft-Hartley Act legalized such measures.
In addition, North Carolina also denies collective bargaining rights to public-sector workers. The historical origins of this policy go back to 1959, when the state legislature approved a measure barring all state and local entities from signing bargaining agreements with unions or other organizations that represent workers. According to historians Dave Zonderman and Jason Burton, the initial impetus for the passage of this legislation was an attempt by the Teamsters to unionize police officers and firemen in Charlotte.
In the years since 1959, North Carolina's ban on public-sector bargaining has done much to inhibit the establishment of a viable labor movement in North Carolina. It's worth noting that this particular state law has become a source of international legal controversy for North Carolina. Most significantly, in 2006 the United Nations-backed International Commission for Labor Rights declared the measure to be a violation of international human rights standards.
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ON THIS basis, the state has been able to continue the long-held practice of attracting outside investors to relocate their businesses to North Carolina. This is particularly true of Charlotte. As Bob Morgan, president of the city's Chamber of Commerce, pointed out in a 2011 speech, Charlotte's economic development model hinges on its ability to "recruit [jobs] away from others."
In the spirit of North Carolina's anti-union tradition, Charlotte actively maintains what might be referred to as a "union-busting apparatus." The most blatant manifestation of this is the city's aptly named BusinessFirst program. Established in 2006 as a joint initiative between the city of Charlotte and the Chamber of Commerce, BusinessFirst was designed to aid businesses that migrate into the Charlotte area by helping them to "solve problems," according to information published on the Chamber of Commerce's website.
To do this, BusinessFirst sends agents--including employees of the Chamber and the city--"to visit business owners to hear firsthand about their everyday problems and help identify solutions." Among their other specialties, BusinessFirst is adept at providing assistance to employers that are "encountering barriers to business growth."
In the time since its establishment, BusinessFirst has "met with more than 1,500 companies" and addressed "over 280 requests for assistance." While the language used to describe this initiative is intentionally opaque, BusinessFirst undoubtedly serves as a means of ensuring the city's anti-union environment. In so doing, it also serves as a p.r. tool used to attract other businesses to relocate to the region.
There's one other important reason that Democrat operatives looked to Charlotte to host the DNC--its extremely limited recent history of activism. In fact, St. Louis was considered the most likely selection spot for the convention in late 2010, but this changed when Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, an influential Democrat and a close confidante of Obama, intervened in the matter.
According to a New York Times report, McCaskill put pressure on top officials in the Democratic National Committee to not choose St. Louis. McCaskill had been a strong backer of St. Louis's bid to host the DNC, but she reversed her stance out of anxiety that the city would attract large-scale protests, thus jeopardizing her 2012 re-election campaign. As the New York Times documented, McCaskill secretly informed top-level Democrats "that her re-election could be complicated if the convention was held in St. Louis, because the Democratic gathering will almost certainly attract protesters and compete for fund-raising" (emphasis added).
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ALL OF this has created a bit of an awkward situation for Obama this election year. North Carolina's lack of labor unions and liberal lobbyists has ensured that, even more than usual, corporate elites have dominated every aspect of the planning process for the convention. The host committee's office space, for example, is located in the Duke Energy Headquarters building in uptown Charlotte. The space is on lease, free of charge, from Duke Energy.
In addition, Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, serves as the host committee's co-chair, where he has overseen much of the city's fundraising for the convention. This puts Rogers--who received $18.54 million in total compensation last year--in the bizarre role of courting labor unions to make donations to the DNC. What's more, Duke Energy--as anyone who's ever seen Barbara Kopple's great labor documentary Harlan County, USA will recall--has a notoriously anti-union reputation.
Most recently, Duke Energy has been active in pushing for right-to-work legislation in several Midwestern states. Currently, Duke Energy serves as the co-chair for the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council in Indiana, the group that played a prominent role in the authoring and lobbying for the passage of the state's right-to-work law earlier this year. Furthermore, in recent months, Duke Power and Rogers have also become embroiled in controversy over the company's shady handling of a merger with Progress Energy.
Not surprisingly, Rogers' fundraising overtures to organized labor have been a disastrous failure, leading to promises on the part of several labor unions to withhold funding from the Charlotte convention entirely. Intransigence by organized labor led Rogers to make what amounts to a threat of blackmail in an interview with Politico this May.
Rogers declared that, if labor unions were to opt out of the convention because it's being held in a right-to-work state, they would be "sending a message that [they're] really not interested in the unionization of people in right-to-work states." Such a message, he asserted, would not be in labor's "best interest because more and more states are moving to be right-to-work states."
In contrast to his troubles with organized labor, Rogers has been quite successful in getting corporate donors to open their wallets. Notably, Rogers has led the way in the host committee's efforts to exploit a loophole in the city's contract with the DNC to avoid any restriction on the host committee's ability to rake in direct donations from corporations and lobbyists.
In order to enlist CEOs and lobbyists as DNC fundraisers, the host committee, again with Rogers leading the way, has marketed a series of VIP luxury packages for the DNC, available in "four different tiers for high-level donors." At the top, according to Bloomberg News, is the $1 million "presidential" level where "donors will receive a 'premier uptown hotel room,' a 'platinum credential package,' a 'platinum events package,' as well as 'concierge services.'"
The corporate domination of the convention is also evident in the choice of location sites for the convention. Fittingly, the convention's final and most important night--where Barack Obama will deliver the speech accepting his party's nomination--will take place in the aptly named Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers NFL franchise.
Originally, the host committee had planned to hold the final evening's proceedings in the Time Warner Cable Arena (still the site of the first two days of the convention), but they decided to change locations in order to "sell more skyboxes to wealthy donors," another aspect of the four-tier luxury plan designed to court big money from corporate plutocrats.
Such details render laughable the Democrats' attempt to brand the 2012 DNC as "The People's Convention."
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FORTUNATELY, THE Democrats' decision to host the DNC in one of the most reactionary states in the nation has not gone unnoticed by many mainstream organizations that traditionally back the Democrats.
When North Carolina in May passed the Amendment 1 ballot referendum to define marriage between a man and woman as the state's only legally recognized civil union, many advocates for LGBT rights responded by heaping pressuring on the Democrats. In the week following the vote, tens of thousands signed an online petition by Gay Marriage USA that called for the Democrats to move the convention away from Charlotte.
Most significantly, the Democrats' selection of Charlotte has been a source of friction between organized labor and the Democrats, a development linked to labor's frustration with Obama's already extreme anti-union agenda. As one top labor official put it, union leaders found it troubling that the Democrats "would choose a state with the lowest unionization rate in the country due to regressive policies aimed at diluting the power of workers."
Anger over the selection of Charlotte led more than a dozen AFL-CIO unions--including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the International Association of Machinists (IAM)--to announce plans last year to boycott the DNC.
It's worth noting that organized labor's tough talk about the DNC was not motivated by any desire to split with the Democrats; indeed, the leaders of the AFL-CIO have gone out of their way to repeatedly proclaim their allegiance to Obama. Rather, the decision to boycott of the convention was intended as a means of diverting growing levels of rank-and-file anger at the Democrats into a safe and minimally contentious channel.
Most significantly, the boycott has been used as a means of applying political pressure to the Democrats without actually badmouthing Obama or other prominent Democrats during an election year.
As a testament to this, the boycott has pressured the Democrats to make an effort to appease labor officialdom in time for the start of the Charlotte convention. Most notably, the Democratic National Committee recently announced plans to pull a portion of its banking business out of Bank America and, instead, place it into the union-owned Amalgamated Bank.
As top AFL-CIO stick to the script by "easing tensions" with top Democrats, the controversy over the Charlotte selection still has significance for those seeking to expose the corporate interests at the heart of the Democratic Party. To this end, the Charlotte DNC--and the protests that will accompany it--provides an opportunity to further expose the anti-union nature of the Democratic Party. With any hope, this could help to build the foundation for the future rise of a working-class political movement that exists outside of the two-party system. As Shamus Cooke argued in a recent column:
This remains the task of the day in the United States. Organized labor is the only social force among working people at this time with the resources capable of building a party able to compete with the two parties of big business. If unions broke with the anti-union Democrats and raised their own pro-worker demands, tens of millions of Americans would happily leave both the Democrat and Republican parties. The Democrats cannot be reformed; their "progressive caucus" has proven unwilling to inspire working people with bold action, and serves only to give political cover to the corporate soul of the Democratic Party.