Big Labor’s Democratic Convention

Charlotte businessmen criticize DNC contracting practices

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February 22, 2012

Local businessmen in the least-unionized state in the country are worried that organizers of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., are putting the Democratic Party’s alliance with organized labor ahead of local businesses—as well as state law.

As the Charlotte Observer has previously reported, the Democratic National Convention Committee’s (DNCC) master contract with the city of Charlotte mandates that union labor be maximized with respect to convention-related work.

"To the extent permitted by law … all services, goods, equipment, supplies and materials to be provided or procured by the Host Committee hereunder shall be performed or supplied by firms covered by current union collective bargaining agreements," the contract reads.

Given North Carolina’s status as a right-to-work state, which prohibits forced unionization, the contract’s language has raised concern among local business owners.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 3 percent of North Carolina workers are union members, making it the least unionized state in the country.

Kenny Colbert, president of the Employers Association, a human resources consulting group in Charlotte, said the convention contracts are "a fairly popular topic of conversation" among local business owners.

"You're looking at a city that has virtually no unions, so even if one contract is awarded and union labor is brought in from the outside it is going cause concern to area employers," he said. "They will be extremely upset if outside union labor is brought in above local non-union labor."

A number of local businesses have already claimed they were denied work because of their non-union status.

Sherwood Webb, owner of the Webb and Partners Inc., a project management firm in Charlotte, told the Washington Free Beacon he gave up trying to get a convention contract when he was told that he would have to unionize to be considered.

"The one question was will we have to be union and they said, ‘Yes,’" Webb told the Free Beacon. "I understand they’re saying now that’s not true, but I did not pursue the work because that’s what I was told."

As first reported by the conservative blog RedState, a local owner of a non-union printing firm said he was told by convention officials he was "wasting his time" applying for a contract unless he planned to hire union workers.

John Monteith, who owns Heritage Printing & Graphics in Charlotte, told the Free Beacon he had a face-to-face meeting several months ago with "one of the top four people" on the Charlotte host committee, who told him "We cannot accept bids unless they are from companies that are unionized."

Convention officials insisted that the individual in question "misspoke," but Monteith notes that the accuracy of his charge has not been challenged.

When it comes to the large "directional signage" to be used at the convention facilities—work that Monteith had been seeking—the license agreement with Time Warner Cable Arena for the convention stipulates that "all such signage shall be printed by union firms."

"I am an educated man that knows how to read plain and simple English," Monteith said. "The contract they signed on my behalf signed away my right to work in my right-to-work state."

The printing contract ultimately went to Consolidated Press, Inc., a small, unionized firm in Charlotte.

Monteith said this was on odd decision, given that Consolidated Press does not do the large format printing that will be required to make the signs. He argued that comparing Consolidated Press to some of the larger local printing operations like his own "is like comparing a lemonade stand to a Super Wal-Mart."

"Either they’ll have to invest millions in equipment or find a union company to print materials for them," he said.

The convention’s "Request for Proposal" application also urges local businesses to express a commitment to union labor, among other things. Firms, including prospective subcontractors, looking to bid on convention contracts must have "a proven history of working with minority-owned business enterprises, women-owned business enterprises, and business enterprises owned by persons with disabilities, unionized workers, and the ability to present and implement sustainable construction designs."

Most of the winning bids for convention contracts have consisted of teams that include both local and out-of-state firms, as well as a mix of union and non-union firms. Many of the out-of-state firms have a history of working with organized labor, which is not uncommon for companies that do business in several states.

"The firms chosen represent the best of the Carolinas and the diversity of America," convention CEO Steve Kerrigan said in October 2011, announcing the first set of contracts.

DNCC officials say that union membership is one of many factors that the committee considers in selecting the winners.

"The factors the DNCC considered in awarding the contracts, as it does for all contracts, include experience and expertise, local resources and ties to Charlotte, North Carolina and the region, experience working with union labor, commitment to sustainability, and being women, minority, disability or veteran owned, or making use of such labor," convention spokesman Joanne Peters told the Free Beacon in an emailed statement.

Critics allege, however, that these in-state, out-of-state partnerships are little more than a guise.

"It’s really a way to hide union contracts behind local management," said one Charlotte business owner who declined to speak on the record.

Unions are one of the most politically active interest groups in the country, spending more than $400 million in 2008 to help elect President Obama and other Democrats, and millions more on lobbying.

"When you’re talking about financial support [of that magnitude], it should surprise no one if the DNC discriminates against non-union workers to pay back their union boss benefactors," said Patrick Semmens, legal information director for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund.

Semmens’ group has offered free legal aid to non-union businesses that are discriminated against, but he says it is too early to file any cases.

Monteith, the printer, said the DNC’s dishonesty disturbs him more than the use of union labor or the political payoffs.

"Look, it is their prerogative to use union help," he said. "In fact, they would be foolish not to scratch the back that scratches theirs, but it’s the lies and secrecy and the shroud of silence that really concerns me, saying they’re going to use local labor and then bringing in these outside firms."