Unions divided over holding Democratic convention in right-to-work North Carolina

Thirteen labor unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO are refusing to participate in the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. because of the state's harsh anti-union laws.

But that decision isn't sitting well with labor leaders in North Carolina, who helped lobby for Charlotte to be the convention site. North Carolina is the least-unionized state in the nation, with only 3.2 percent of its workers belonging to a union.

"It's easy to understand why folks are disappointed and frustrated," MaryBe McMillan, the secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, told News 14 Carolina. "But I don't think that sitting out this convention because it's in the least-unionized state is going to do anything to help the situation in North Carolina and make us a more worker-friendly state."

Most of the unions that voted to sit out the convention are part of the AFL-CIO's building and construction trades unit, representing about 2.5 million workers. The International Association of Machinists, which is not part of the building trades group, has also said it will not attend.

"We find it troubling that the party so closely associated with basic human rights would choose a state with the lowest unionization rate in the country due to regressive policies aimed at diluting the power of workers," Mark Ayers, president of the building trades unit, wrote in a letter to Democratic Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents Florida in Congress.

So-called "right-to-work" laws -- dubbed "right-to-work-for-less" laws by labor activists -- make it illegal for a group of unionized workers to negotiate a contract that requires each employee who benefits from the contract to pay his or her share of the costs for negotiating and policing the agreement. A study released earlier this year by the Economic Policy Institute found that wages in right-to-work states are 3.2 percent lower than in non-right-to-work states.

Of the 22 states with right-to-work laws, 11 are in the South. Besides North Carolina, the right-to-work states are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.

Democrats have said the choice to hold the convention in Charlotte, announced back in February, is part of the party's effort to win critical swing states in the South. North Carolina has traditionally voted GOP in presidential races but backed Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

The Democratic National Convention Committee issued a statement saying it plans to "work closely with local and national labor leaders" in the run-up to the convention, set for next September. McMillan said she hopes the selection will provide a boost for the state, where the unemployment rate is 9.9 percent -- above the national average of 9.1 percent. The jobs situation in the Charlotte area is even more dire, with a regional unemployment rate of 11.2 percent.

"We at the North Carolina AFL-CIO see this convention as an opportunity to get much needed work for union members and for thousands of unemployed workers here in North Carolina," McMillan said.