Obama's Labor Problem: Charlotte Union Chief Shuns Democratic Convention

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- ( TheStreet) -- Bill Wise is an influential labor leader in the Carolinas, president of a Charlotte local that represents 2,000 US Airways ( LCC) workers, and a committed Barack Obama voter in the coming presidential election.

Yet Wise wants nothing at all to do with the Democratic National Convention that begins Sept. 3 in Charlotte.

In fact, Wise is so committed to avoiding the convention that he has not returned recent calls from two Democratic National Committee members. "I don't have anything to do with that," he says. "I have a prior commitment and I'm not going to go through a sales pitch in the eleventh hour."

During the convention, Wise plans to attend a meeting of the South Carolina AFL-CIO in Georgetown, S.C. He is vice president of the organization: IAM Local 1725, which he heads, represents Southwest ( LUV) workers in Charleston and Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C, as well as US Airways and United Continental ( UAL) workers in Charlotte.

Without reading too much into Wise's position -- he is outspoken and strongly independent -- it is hard to avoid the conclusion, after speaking with him, that Obama has a labor problem. At the very least, Obama has a problem with the 700,000-member International Association of Machinists, a visible, activist union that dominates the aerospace and airline sectors. IAM President Tom Buffenbarger says that he too will stay away from the convention, where the union's participation will be at an historic low.

A big part of the problem, Wise says, is that Democratic party "has not supported the working man like it said it was going to do, even when it had control of the House and Senate." He notes that in February, Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization act even after Republicans inserted language, unrelated to the substance of the bill, making it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to form unions.

Still, Wise backs Obama. "I don't think any president who took over from George Bush would be any further along than Barack Obama is now," he says.

As a labor leader in the Carolinas, Wise is a rare breed. North Carolina is the least unionized state, with 2.9% union membership, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. South Carolina, where Wise lives, is the second least unionized state with 3.4% union membership. Says Buffenbarger, "I would rank Bill Wise at the top of the list of guys who don't back down from a challenge."

Says Wise: "The education level when it comes to unions is not where it should be in these two states, (but) North Carolina is not as blatant and in your face about labor unions as South Carolina is." He recalled that South Carolina politicians, including Gov. Nikki Haley, demonized the labor movement during a 2011 dispute over a finding by the National Labor Relations Board's general counsel that Boeing ( BAC) violated labor law when it moved work on the 787 to North Charleston, S.C. in retaliation for an IAM strike. Labor law protects the right to strike.

Boeing addressed this problem not through the contentious solution pushed by South Carolina politicians, who essentially sought to dismantle decades-old labor laws, but rather through the more productive course of negotiations with the IAM. This led to a landmark 2011 contract agreement.

Formally, the IAM, whose membership is 65% Democratic and 35% Republican, backs Obama. But "our polling shows that members are upset with both parties," Buffenbarger says. "They are not thrilled with Romney, and our Democratic constituency is not happy with the current administration. It is not that they are angry at President Obama, but they are pissed off at Congress, and the president gets sucked into this."

Frequently, IAM members are delegates to the Democratic convention. Since the 1948 convention, the union has averaged about 100 delegates at each Democratic convention. This year, it will have four. "Unlike in 2008, there is a lack of interest this year," Buffenbarger says.

A second factor in the IAM's coolness towards Obama is that within the labor movement, the IAM was perhaps the strongest backer of Hillary Clinton for president in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

"We happened to be the most outspoken and the last to leave the (Clinton) campaign," Buffenbarger says. "I'm not the only one who backed Hillary who continues to feel a backlash from the administration. Most of the unions who were with us also receive very little acknowledgment."

If Clinton were to run for president in 2016, Buffenbarger adds, "We would certainly be interested. She's her own person, but she was an effective voice for us as senator from New York, even on trade deals, and we are a loyal bunch of folks."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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