Unions Challenge Democrats on Denver Convention

Unions are threatening to disrupt the 2008 Democratic National Convention. They're upset that the DNC chose a non-union facility in Denver for the convention. Matters became even more tense when Bill Ritter, Colorado's Democratic governor, vetoed a pro-union bill he had pledged to sign.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's check up on the other party. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee will be in Denver today. The official purpose is to congratulate the Mile High City for being picked to host the 2008 Democratic Convention. Of course, Howard Dean will have to spend at least some of his time trying to repair relations with labor union leaders. Several have called on Democrats to move the convention to a more labor-friendly city.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: The Intermountain West is not a labor stronghold. In this region only about eight percent of workers belong to a union. When Democrats were deciding where to hold their convention, they discovered there was just one union hotel in all of Colorado, and the only building in town big enough for the convention itself employs only non-union workers. If that weren't enough to upset the party's labor constituency, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat himself, dropped this bombshell in February.

Governor BILL RITTER (Democrat, Colorado): I have just signed a letter communicating back to the general assembly that I am vetoing House Bill 1072.

BRADY: House Bill 1072 was organized labor's top priority in Colorado. It would have made it much easier to organize unions in the state. A few weeks later, the National AFL-CIO, meeting in the much friendlier union environment of Las Vegas, Nevada, decreed that Governor Ritter should change his tune or the Democrats should move their convention.

Ms. ELBRA WEDGEWORTH (President, Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee): Right now, we're under a contractual obligation to the DNC and they are to us. So can it be moved? No.

BRADY: Elbra Wedgeworth heads the Denver 2008 Convention Host Committee. She's read all the stories in local papers. Most recently, it was Teamsters' President James Hoffa confronting Governor Ritter at a Washington dinner. Hoffa was upset about the veto and the lack of unionized facilities in Denver. Wedgeworth says Denver was picked because Democrats see an opportunity to gain a few electoral votes in this part of the country. States like Colorado have been looking a bit bluer these days. But Wedgeworth says labor leaders can't expect to get the same accommodations as in past convention cities that have a big union presence.

Ms. WEDGEWORTH: You have to understand that this is Colorado. This isn't New York, we're not Detroit, we're not L.A. We're not Chicago. This is Denver, Colorado, and it's a different situation.

BRADY: Across town, Mark Schwane heads the Colorado Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Schwane says the current friction between Democrats and labor leaders is evidence of a steep learning curve for local politicians who aren't used to dealing with unions.

Mr. MARK SCHWANE (Executive Director, Colorado Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees): Probably on East Coast, West Coast, politicians have much better sense of what labor members bring to the table for the party. I think that's something that's really a new concept here in Colorado.

BRADY: Schwane says he's taking a longer view than some of his union brothers and sisters. He sees a changing political tide in Colorado and the surrounding states, and with that, new opportunities for unions like his to organize more workers.

Mr. SCHWANE: The East is sort of played out. West Coast is certainly has much higher union density. This is really where - if union growth is coming, it's going to be out here in the West.

BRADY: Schwane's big picture analysis has not cut on with a few national labor leaders, though. When James Hoffa confronted Governor Ritter at that dinner, he said the convention could be marked by protests and picket lines. Nelson Lichtenstein says threats like that holds some weight, especially with candidates for president and Congress. He's a labor history professor at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Professor NELSON LICHTENSTEIN (Labor History, University of California Santa Barbara): Someone like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards, what they don't want is to have a picture of them crossing a picket line, you know, in the middle of the Democratic National Convention.

BRADY: And so Howard Dean will try to smooth over problems with labor while in Denver today. As one local politician said, it's time for everyone to have a frank talk.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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