Labor to convene in Philadelphia prior to GOP, Dem conventions

Rich Trumka, pictured in 2009. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Rich Trumka, pictured in 2009. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 13, 2012

When the Democrats announced their decision last year to hold their national convention in Charlotte, N.C., union electricians heard the news at their annual convention. They were stunned at the choice of a city with no union hotels in a right-to-work state, and their president, Edwin D. Hill, was furious.

The upshot is a huge preconvention convention planned by organized labor in Philadelphia on Aug. 11, weeks before the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

"Every union hotel will be filled that weekend," promised John J. Dougherty, the politically connected leader of Philadelphia's Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Hill's union. Dougherty said he didn't know how much it would cost to host the event, but said Local 98 would be picking up a lot of the tab.

The rally, titled "Workers Stand for America," will be announced Thursday by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and Hill at a news conference in Washington.

The rally is expected to attract anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of working people — union and nonunion — and workers' advocate groups to Philadelphia. It is intended to focus public attention on issues such as jobs, pensions, health care, safety and the right to organize, local labor leaders said.

The night before the rally, Trumka and the top national leaders of many unions are expected to gather outside Independence Hall to urge politicians to support a "second bill of rights" for workers, Dougherty said. The signing will be followed by a party at the Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown Hotel. "

“It's going to be old-school — hamburgers, hot dogs, straw hat, confetti, red, white and blue," said Dougherty.

Philadelphia was chosen, leaders said, because it had already promoted a series of similar rallies in 2011, because the first bill of rights was drafted in the city and because of its central location on the East Coast. It helped that Hill, who championed the idea to the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, could call on logistical help from the IBEW Local 98.

The theme is to bring working people together and to let political parties know that economic issues and working conditions of the middle class have to be on their agenda, said Patrick Eiding, who heads the Philadelphia Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO.

The danger is, of course, that organized labor will throw a party and no one will come, said Christopher Borick, director of the Institute of Public Policy at Muhlenberg College.

"Any time you stage an event, you want to make it look powerful," Borick said. "And if the visuals don't portray that — near-empty venues, small crowds and less-than-enthusiastic gatherings, there's the risk that the event looks weak, and you can't portray weakness as movement or an organization in a political environment."

Eiding isn't worried. "There's not a chance that the Parkway isn't going to be filled on the Aug. 11," he said.

"I don't know anything about it," said Mayor Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald. He noted that one of the major components of the local economy, beyond "eds and meds" — education and medicine — is hotel beds. "We're happy for all these conventions."

The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau cannot put an estimate on attendance because no bookings have been made through the bureau, which is unusual for large gathering. "It's not a citywide [convention]," said spokeswoman Danielle Cohn.

Even four years ago, planting a Democratic convention in a city such as Charlotte would have been unthinkable. Why would Democrats, who rely on organized labor, put a convention in a right-to-work state and in a city that had no union hotels and where the majority, if not all, of the hotels were built by nonunion labor, asked IBEW spokesman James Spellane.

Even assuming it wasn't an outright slap in organized labor's face, it seemed to Hill and others that labor's issues, and maybe even labor's loyalty, were being ignored or taken for granted. "It made people realize," Spellane said, "that there was a time when that wouldn't have happened because so many [Democrats] had the consciousness of these issues.

“The Democrats didn't do anything to be hostile to us. They probably just didn't think about it," Spellane said. "It just goes to show how the whole society has changed."

The Democratic convention starts Sept. 3, Labor Day. The Republican convention begins Aug. 27.

Labor has always counted on the strength of its numbers, but recent events, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's defeat of a recall vote pushed by unions who wanted to unseat him for sharply curtailing collective bargaining, have cast some doubt on that perceived strength.

"If the Democratic Party decided to go to North Carolina because they want to extend their reach into the Southern states, they, of course, recognized that that would alienate labor leaders, being that they are going into a right-to-work state. But they were willing to take that gamble," Muhlenberg's Borick said. "Someone made that calculation. They are probably wagering that labor isn't going anywhere, that they'll still show up for the Democrats."

That appears to be the case. Every labor leader interviewed for this story repeated a commitment to electing President Obama.

"It's not a secret," said Elizabeth McElroy, secretary-treasurer of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO and its political director. "Getting the president reelected is the goal of the AFL-CIO."

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, at jvonbergen@phillynews.com or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter.

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