At 35,000-Member Rally, AFL-CIO Attempts the Herculean

With rank-and-filers outraged over the DNC being held in anti-union North Carolina, the AFL-CIO makes an uphill case for Obama

Mike Elk

Thousands of members from hundreds of unions gathered in Philadelphia to endorse President Obama while also expressing dissatisfaction with current labor conditions. (Alex Hogan / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Earlier this month, when thousands of union members gathered in Philadelphia for the AFL-CIO’s Workers Stand for America” rally, labor leaders tried to pull off a difficult balancing act: firing up a weary, embattled labor movement while presenting an endorsement of Barack Obama as the lesser of two evils.

"A worker voting for Mitt Romney is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders," says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

Out of fear of the Republicans’ all-out war on unions, labor leaders found themselves in the awkward position of having to champion the reelection of Obama, whose actions toward organized labor have ranged from indifferent to hostile. Touting Obama at the August 11 rally posed additional difficulties because the event had been initially seen as a sort of shadow convention” in protest of the Democratic National Convention being held in heavily anti-union North Carolina.

At moments, the rally felt like a church revival, with people singing labor’s praises; at others, the sense of siege was oppressive.

Road rage

The day kicked off with an opening rally of approximately 1,000 Verizon workers, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and Communications Workers of America (CWA). Both unions are making very serious noise about going out on strike after Verizon has refused to budge at the bargaining table for nearly 15 months. CWA District 1 Vice President Chris Shelton read off the names of 37 Verizon strikers who were fired–the union claims illegally – in the midst of a three-week Verizon strike last August. Union leader after union leader came onstage to exhort the workers to redouble their fight against Verizon for the sake of the casualties already suffered. 

They are making example of the 37 Verizon workers … but we need to make an example of them,” shouted an emotional CWA President Larry Cohen.

Fired up by Cohen’s saber-rattling, the workers surged into the street for a march to Eakins Oval, nearly a mile away. The chanting workers received honks of support. A postal worker stopped his truck, got out, and told the workers how much he supports what they are doing.

A few blocks later, however, they began to encounter some of other attitudes the public holds toward the labor movement, ranging from indifference to animosity. As traffic stalled, frustrated drivers yelled at the marchers to get out of the way. At one cross street, a thirtysomething climbed out of his car and shouted, You assholes bitching about your jobs are stopping me from getting to my job,” gave the marchers the finger, and went on, Oh you crybabies, pay for your healthcare like everyone else.” Several workers shouted back, but moved on.

At several intersections, streams of cars began to succeed in breaking through, disrupting the march. Eventually, some of the marchers began to tire, and a few diverted into a nearby bar.

But when they reached the plaza to join the 35,000-person crowd, the sense of siege began to lift. The river of red Verizon shirts merged into a sea of blue AFT shirts and green TWU signs. Everything was okay; labor was back together.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressed the assembled workers, to cheers: Anyone who says that we have to downsize the American Dream doesn’t know what this country is all about, and they better get out of our way cause we are going to run up their chest, tap dance on their head, and run down their back.”

Trumka announced the launch of a new AFL-CIO political program called the Second Bill of Rights (echoing FDR’s famous 1944 call for America to ensure its citizens additional rights not specified in the constitution, such as education, employment, food and clothing). The AFL-CIO bill advocates the right to a job at a living wage, the right to full participation in the electoral system, the right to collectively bargain, the right to a quality education, and the rights to health care, retirement security and unemployment insurance.

A bitter pill

Trumka still had a tough sell ahead: AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Obama. Many in organized labor fault Obama for opening the attacks on public sector workers. In a famous speech at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2009, the president called for the getting rid of bad teachers”; the next year, he endorsed the mass firing of unionized teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Campaign for America’s Future Co-President Bob Borosage has likened Obama’s decision to freeze the pay of federal workers to Reagan’s devastating 1981 break-up of the air traffic controllers’ strike, which opened the door for more demands for cuts from other workers. Most recently, the president signed a bill in February making it more difficult for airline workers to unionize, which resulted in an unprecedented anti-union ruling by a federal district court that blocked 10,000 American Airlines customer service agents from holding an election.

Moreover, the rally was initially seen by many as a protest of the DNC, a notion that participating unions had attempted to dispel. Union members were upset that the Democrats chose to hold their convention in Charlotte, N.C., a right-to-work state with the lowest union density of any in the country (2.9 percent). North Carolina also has in place a law dating from the Jim-Crow era that denies public employees the right to collectively bargain. The law, which has been condemned by the UN’s International Labor Organization, forbids union dues from being voluntarily deducted from public employees’ paychecks. Its effect is similar to one of the most controversial provisions of Scott Walker’s anti-union bill, which a federal judge recently ruled unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

In advance of the DNC, public-sector workers in Charlotte’s United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 150 are campaigning to get Mayor Anthony Foxx to help Charlotte’s public workers gain union representation. (Full disclosure: My dad, Gene Elk, is an international representative for the UE). The UE says that non-union sanitation workers in Charlotte are already being forced to work dangerous amounts of mandatory overtime in order to prepare for the convention. In contrast, the Republican National Convention is being held in Tampa, Fla., where public employees who are helping put together the convention do have collective bargaining rights. 

Democrats take the stage

Earlier in the day, leaders were given an unexpected sweetener to help labor swallow the Obama endorsement: Mitt Romney’s announcement that Paul Ryan would be his vice-presidential nominee. AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurers Liz Shuler told me that she thought Ryan was a gift” to the labor movement in helping make the case for Obama. Polls have shown that Obama has had troubling appealing to one of labor’s key constituencies – white working-class men – but it appears Ryan could be the catalyst. As labor leader after labor leader blasted Paul Ryan for wanting to privatize Medicare, the crowd erupted into boos.

None other than Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz showed up to the rally to reaffirm Democrats’ support for organized labor.

President Obama understands that generations of Americans have organized and picketed,” said Wasserman-Schultz in a speech. Today is the birthplace of a Second Bill of Rights for all of America’s workers.” Wasserman-Schultz bragged that she herself is a union member: an honorary member of the Florida Building Trades Council.

I caught up with Wasserman-Schultz afterward to ask whether she believes Charlotte public sector workers should have the right to voluntarily have union dues deducted from their paycheck. Wasserman-Schultz dodged the question, saying, What I know is that Democrats are thrilled and excited about making sure that we put on the most open, accessible Democratic National Convention of any political convention in American history and that we have an opportunity to make sure for America’s workers that they have opportunity to be a part of the American Dream.”

She continued, Barack Obama believes that everyone in America should have an opportunity to be successful. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan think that millionaires and billionaires and the trickledown economics and the failed policies of the past are the way to go.”

I found it ironic that Wasserman-Schultz, who spoke for the AFL-CIO’s Second Bill of Rights, wouldn’t answer whether she agreed workers deserved some of the rights outlined in the original Bill of Rights. So later, I asked Wassermann-Schultz again to give a yes-or-no answer about whether Charlotte workers deserved voluntary dues deduction. She left the press scrum and walked away from the briefing.

A UAW member writing for a union publication took me aside and told me he was unhappy with my question. What, are you a reporter from the National Right to Work Committee?” I informed him that I was a member of the Newspaper Guild (TNG-CWA) and that I was a labor reporter for a pro-union publication. The UAW worker said he agrees with me that what the mayor of Charlotte was doing was wrong, but then chided me for asking Wassermann-Schultz a pigeonholed question.” 

These are not the kind of questions that organized labor wants asked of the Democratic Party.

Is labor a chicken?

Clearly, organized labor is willing to shut up and support the Democrats. Energized by the rally, rank-and-filers appear willing to go along, despite being lukewarm on Obama. I didn’t think the rally was going to be anything more than a pep rally – than a rally the troops kind of thing. But I thought it was great,” says Verizon worker and IBEW Local 824 member Norwood Orrick who traveled up from Tampa, Florida to attend.

Our decision to go with President Obama is more about who else are we going to go with?” Orrick continues. I am lukewarm on him because he hasn’t be a friend of organized labor. … I think Obama and the Democrats in general could have done much more. They could have even had the convention somewhere outside of Charlotte, which is kind of a poke in our eye. There is the federal pay freeze. He certainly seems ambivalent about the whole thing [regarding public sector employees] at best. I think we need to rock the boat a little more with him. We need to get him out of his cage and make him pay more attention to us like some other activist groups have done. Hopefully we will go that route once we get him elected.”

In tune with this sentiment, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sold the Second Bill of Rights as a tool both to elect Obama and to apply post-election pressure: We are going to use it to educate with, we are going to use it mobilize with, we are going to use it to get out the vote. We are going to use it after the election to try to change this economy so that it really does work for everybody.”

Behind closed doors, many leaders agree with the assessment that Mitt Romney is a bullet to the head for organized labor while Obama will continue to be a slow bleed. For now, though, the short-term struggle to defeat Romney feels like a fight for survival.

A worker voting for Mitt Romney is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders,” says Trumka.

For now, organized labor is hoping that Obama’s taste for chicken isn’t as strong as Romney’s.

Correction: The estimated turnout at the Verizon rally has been amended from 5,000 to 1,000.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.