CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The newly-elected president of the giant public workers’ union AFSCME, Lee Saunders, took a page out of Clint Eastwood's book at an Ohio delegation Labor Day breakfast on Monday, speaking to an empty chair that he pretended was occupied by Eastwood. At first it was just a lark.
"He's been sitting here listening to all the speakers before me, he's been listening to me, I want you to give Clint Eastwood a round of applause," Saunders said. "I brought him with me to learn some things, OK? To teach him, to educate him." The audience murmured and laughed.
Saunders asked the chair questions, then joked, "He doesn't have anything to say."
"Mitt Romney doesn't have anything to say," Saunders continued. "Paul Ryan doesn't have anything to say."
Suddenly, the tone changed: Saunders, finishing his speech, began to kick the chair, threw it, and yelled "Dirty Harry, make my day! We're gonna kick ass in November!"
The crowd was cheering, and the humor had gained a palpable edge.
"We wanted to respond to the nonsense that he did last week," Saunders said later. "We're here to have fun but we're here to work, too, so we thought we were sending a message."
Saunders isn’t the only frustrated labor leader at the Democratic National Convention this year. American unions, in the throes of a long slide, have had perhaps their worst run ever facing not only the usual declining membership rolls, but also a public repudiation in a Wisconsin recall vote that centered on the place of public sector workers. Adding to that, the Democratic Party’s choice of Charlotte as the convention was a slap in the face: North Carolina has right-to-work laws and virtually no union presence. The fact that unions couldn’t influence the Democrats’ decision on location a testament to their less-than-omnipotent position.
And while labor leaders and rank-and-file profess to support Obama as much as ever, but the cracks are showing. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told Politico that federation isn't bringing a full staff or even getting a skybox at the convention center. Battles in Ohio and Wisconsin have badly sapped union resources, a labor operative said. Other unions are focused down-ballot, labor operatives said, focused on saving the seats of true labor allies than of fighting for the national Democratic Party.
At the Ohio breakfast, in a large conference room fifteen minutes outside central Charlotte filled with people in AFSCME shirts and Obama buttons, delegates listened to Ohio Democrats and representatives from the Ironworkers, Steelworkers, and other unions pump them up.
“The Democratic Party is the party of labor,” said Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO. “The Democratic Party and its goals are aligned with the labor movement — social and economic justice.”
Burga exhorted the listeners to do everything they could to re-ensure Obama’s reelection: “We must leave everything out on the field this year to re-elect President Obama and re-elect senator Sherrod Brown.”
“They’re afraid of our power,” Saunders told the crowd in his blistering speech.
Martin O’Malley, the governor of Maryland and Democratic Governors’ Association chief, tailored his remarks to the labor crowd (he was also hitting less union-heavy Tennessee that morning).
“Unions have made our country better,” O’Malley said. “You all play a critical role. An absolutely critical role.”
O’Malley put the focus on Congressional races as well as Obama’s re-election, telling the audience that the president needed to be “given a better Congress.”
Later, O’Malley raised an eyebrow at BuzzFeed’s question about labor enthusiasm at the convention.
“The excitement-meter question?” he said. “We’re a big party and we are a national party and we need to reach out to voters all over the country, and that includes the people of North Carolina.”
“I’m not sure when the last time was, if ever, we had a Democratic Convention in North Carolina,” O’Malley said. “I certainly understand the perspective of the men and women of the labor movement, but at the same time this was a decision made as part of a national effort.”
“There will be other events I’m sure that happen in states where labor leaders feel more excited about going. But look, the bottom line is we’re a big country and North Carolina is an important state for us.”
Saunders doesn’t hide his disappointment with the selection of North Carolina as the convention state.
“Charlotte wouldn’t have been our choice as a city,” Saunders told reporters after his Ohio delegation breakfast speech. “It’s in a right to work state, it’s tough to organize down here for private and public sector unions. “
“But we’re beyond that now,” Saunders said. “I mean, it’s over. Charlotte was selected and we’ve got to keep our eyes on the prize and that’s to win in November, and we can’t get caught up in B.S. to be quite honest with you.”
Saunders struck a hopeful note. “We’re going to continue to move forward, we’re going to continue to organize. We’re going to be just fine.”
One of labor’s biggest problems, from the point of view of this election, is that its traditional organizing methods aren’t as useful as they once were in the era of super PACs, mega-rich conservative donors, and technologically advanced campaign techniques.
“Labor can be a significant factor, but what will be its value-added in this presidential election?” asked one labor operative, noting that conservative groups have caught up with labor’s field expertise. “’Boots on the ground’ has always been
labor's claim to fame.”
So the Democrats know that labor won’t be the most significant factor in this presidential election. The labor movement, for its part, is still charged with drumming up enthusiasm for a party that has slighted it.
George Tucker, the AFSCME regional director for the Toledo, Ohio area, has been a union member since 1966. He was resigned to the task at hand.
“We’re here, and we’ve got a job to do, and that’s to get the president and the vice-president elected,” Tucker said. “The people here have treated us well.”
Tucker said he thinks the enthusiasm among regular union members — most of whom at the breakfast were wearing Obama paraphernalia — was more pronounced in Charlotte than at home. “I think they are [excited] here at the convention. I think we need to go back and help the excitement build up with our members.”
“We’ve got to get out and get out the message out to the people,” Tucker said. “About what it means to the middle class to have a union.”
For the labor movement, no matter who the Democratic candidate is, the alternative will always be worse.
Romney “doesn’t have a clue what the average working person has to go through,” Tucker said. “Not only to get a job, but to keep a job. He doesn’t have a clue on that.”