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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to look down the road now to the Democratic National Convention, to be held in Charlotte, North Carolina next year. The party's ties to organized labor run deep, but unions are scarce in Charlotte. Local businesses worry that they won't get convention work because they're not union. Convention organizers say the contracts won't go exclusively to union labor, but one thing is for sure: It's a good time to be a union shop in Charlotte.

From member station WFAE, Julie Rose reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: This is just not a guy who seems like he'd have a secret identity.

TIM MULLANEY: I'm Tim Mullaney and Consolidated Press here in Charlotte is my little company. My dad started it in 1966 and it's my little wagon to drag now.

ROSE: The secret side of Mullaney's little wagon is that it's a union print shop - the only one in Charlotte, aside from a one-man operation that makes memorabilia for firefighters. Mullaney's dad unionized the place in 1968 to get the business of another union in town. Mullaney kept it that way because he says it makes his nine employees happy and because a little less than half of his customers have union ties. Most of the rest don't even know he's union. It's not something he advertises.

MULLANEY: You know, we've actually got - and have maintained for years and years - two different scratchpad piles, for example. When you go out and see customers...

ROSE: Can we have a look?

One pile has the shop's union label, the other doesn't. When in doubt, Mullaney gives customers the one without.

MULLANEY: There's no sense in pouring salt into a wound.

ROSE: See, organized labor isn't well-loved in Charlotte. North Carolina has the lowest percentage of unionized workers of any state. Economic development officials and elected leaders here proudly tout that.

Union workers like electrician Tommy Hill are used to getting shushed.

TOMMY HILL: You know, I've been on jobs that you can't wear a T-shirt with union paraphernalia on it, no stickers on your hard hats, that kind of thing. For years, you know, this is an anti-union state.

ROSE: And now union workers in Charlotte hope the 2012 Democratic National Convention will be their moment in the sun. Their optimism is fueled by public statements from the CEO of the convention committee, Steve Kerrigan.

STEVE KERRIGAN: We hope to maximize our participation in union labor across the board in all the contracts where we can. But we're going to focus on making sure that local businesses and local employment is a priority, as well.

ROSE: Many firms in Charlotte fear the Democrats will bring union workers from other states to staff the convention. Most of the contracts have yet to be awarded, but Consolidated Press is already cashing in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

ROSE: Even before Charlotte won the convention bid, local officials knocked on Tim Mullaney's door. Why? Well, he could put something on the city's bid documents no other local printer could.

MULLANEY: Yeah, a union bug.

ROSE: A union bug is a small insignia that certifies the document was printed by union labor.

MULLANEY: You know, if you had a little imagination and you put a couple of legs on the left and right of it, it could kind of look like a bug. If you don't know what it is, you wouldn't really realize it was there.

ROSE: But to unions - and to Democrats who rely heavily on them for campaign support - the union bug is a must for official documents. It's kind of a secret code. And it's so important, the national convention committee says all 20,000 welcome packets for delegates, 10,000 media guides, and every convention sign posted around town must be done by a union print shop, period. Which bodes very well for Consolidated Press.

MULLANEY: The week of the convention, we'll be here 24 hours a day. I'm pretty much sure of it. That entire week, we'll be wide open.

ROSE: Mullaney hasn't won all of the Democratic convention's printing business yet. But for once, his union status isn't something he feels the need to downplay.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte.

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