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Democrats' Denver choice rankles unions

The Democrats' choice of Denver to anoint their presidential nominee in 2008 has stirred up angst among unions, one of the party's core groups, because of Colorado's reputation as an unfriendly place for organized labor.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Democrats' choice of Denver to anoint their presidential nominee in 2008 has stirred up angst among unions, one of the party's core groups, because of Colorado's reputation as an unfriendly place for organized labor.

Democrats worry that picketing and protests could put a damper on their party.

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, will confront some of the problems firsthand Thursday when he arrives in Denver for meetings with local officials and John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.

"Labor is an important partner," DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton said this week. "We will continue to address concerns and work with all of our partners toward a mutually acceptable agreement and a successful convention."

Democrats and unions
Things should be rosy between labor unions and the Democratic Party.

Union help in the midterm elections helped return Democrats to control of Congress. Unions' issues are now paramount in the House and Senate, where lawmakers have voted to increase the minimum wage and to give airport screeners limited bargaining rights.

Democrats have also pushed through the House a bill that would allow workers to form a union after more than 50 percent of its work force has signed union authorization cards. Under the bill a company would no longer have the right to demand a secret-ballot election, overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, before a union can be certified.

Their eyes on the White House after being on the outside for eight years, Democrats are counting on the Aug. 25-28, 2008, convention going off without a hitch. The brewing labor trouble could become a big problem.

Denver disagreement
Last month, the AFL-CIO threatened to force Democrats to abandon Denver after Colorado's Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed a bill making it easier to set up all-union workplaces. "Unless we can be assured that the governor will support our values and priorities, we will strongly urge the Democratic Party to relocate the convention," said the AFL-CIO's executive council.

Teamsters President James Hoffa chimed in last week, injecting himself into a conversation between Ritter and Sweeney at a Washington, D.C., dinner to say they would "blow up" Denver with picketing and protests if union issues didn't get worked out.

Dean has attempted to quell some of the discontent. He went face-to-face with Teamsters leaders last month and apologized for the Colorado problems. He was also on the phone with Sweeney as the AFL-CIO executive council passed its resolution and has talked numerous times with Sweeney since.

Ritter will be out of town Thursday so it's unlikely the labor issues will be settled. Sweeney, nonetheless, decided it was important for him to be in Denver with Dean, said AFL-CIO spokeswoman Denise Mitchell.

"He sends a strong message by going that he plans to be personally involved and personally determined that these problems are going to get resolved," she said.

Non-union venue
Besides their displeasure with Ritter, unions don't like that the convention will be held at the Pepsi Center, a non-union venue. There are also few unionized hotels in Denver.

An agreement to staff the Pepsi Center with union employees for the convention in exchange for a no-protesting pledge has not been completed.

"There is consternation about the fact that a nonunion venue was chosen," said Mitch Ackerman, president of the Colorado Council of the Service Employees International Union. "And there is some consternation that this is a town where workers really struggle to form unions."

Making things worse is the fact that Republicans - normally no friend of organized labor - will hold their convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., a state with more than double the number of unionized workers. The Labor Department lists 395,000 union members in Minnesota compared with 165,000 in Colorado.

Previous deals
Threats of union picketing almost have become an annual rite for political conventions. The Boston police gained a last-minute contract after Democratic officials stepped in to save the 2004 convention from threatened picketing and protests.

"Frankly, this type of conversation has really had to happen before all of the recent conventions," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., who met with Sweeney last month in her Washington office and has offered her services as a mediator.

Convention season is organized labor's moment, and they will use their leverage for all it's worth, said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

They won't take it too far, though, Chaison said, because a lack of unity at the presidential convention would hurt labor unions as much as it would the Democratic candidate they'll eventually support.

"I think they'll make their point and then back away," Chaison said.

Denver last hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1908, when the party nominated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska in his third unsuccessful effort to become president.