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Unions dig in for Obama despite disappointment with his record

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Organized labor is working hard for President Obama, looking upon him as the lesser of two evils compared to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Labor has been repeatedly let down by Obama, who didn’t put his strength behind legislation that would have made it easier to organize unions and signed trade deals opposed by workers.

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Unions only reluctantly supported his healthcare law, which lacked the public option championed by labor. And they were deeply upset by his decision to extend the Bush-era tax rates for the wealthy in a December 2010 deal with congressional Republicans.

Obama and the Democratic National Committee offered a final insult to labor by picking the right-to-work state North Carolina to host the Democratic convention, a decision that led unions to cut their participation and spending in Charlotte.

The AFL-CIO had more than 40 staff members and a skybox at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, but will only have about 15 people and no skybox in Charlotte.

“I was discouraged,” said Andy Bock, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 96, based in Ames, Iowa. “I planned to pack up a lot of breakfast bars to spend as few dimes here as possible.”

Still, union members insist they’ll be going all-out to elect Obama in the fall, despite their differences. Labor plans an aggressive grassroots effort involving door-to-door campaigning that could be particularly important this year, as both sides say turnout could decide the election.

The reason is Romney, whom they believe would be far worse than Obama when it comes to their issues.

“God forbid if the other side won the election. It would be disastrous,” said John Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO, who is in Charlotte as a delegate for Maryland.

Romney has described the National Labor Relations Board members as “union stooges” and has promised to support states that want to invoke right-to-work laws banning agreements between employers and unions that require union membership and dues.

The GOP platform goes further, backing enactment of a national right-to-work law.

Labor leaders and rank-and-file members alike acknowledge disappointment in Obama.

“Have we gotten everything we wanted? Absolutely not,” said Arlene Holt Baker, the AFL-CIO’s executive vice president.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced in a July memo that the AFL-CIO would not make major contributions to the convention and would not host events, with the exception of a labor delegates meeting.

“We don’t have a skybox. Our resources are going to door knocks,” Holt Baker said Monday.

To an extent, union officials offer caveats and excuses for Obama when they are asked about being disappointed.

Holt Baker noted that Obama inherited a difficult economy, while other union representatives blame Republicans for obstructing the president.

There are some unions that are very happy with Obama.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) has been a vocal supporter of Obama ever since the president offered a bailout for Chrysler and General Motors after his election. Republicans argue the terms of the bailout favored organized labor over taxpayers and investors in the two companies.

“He has done well by the automakers. He has added jobs. He stood behind us when everyone tried to close the door. That speaks volumes,” said Mona Copeland, a Chrysler worker and member of the UAW Local 1248.

Obama’s decision to impose tariffs on imports of Chinese tires was highlighted by U.S. steelworkers as a significant step for Obama.

While the Charlotte convention in general won’t have a high-profile union presence, that wasn’t the case on Monday.

Union members were out in full force at CarolinaFest on Labor Day, the day before the convention officially begins. Several labor groups had sponsored booths, like the North Carolina State AFL-CIO and a local affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Union members from North Carolina welcomed the convention to Charlotte, saying it brought jobs and an economic boost to the region.

Trumka will speak at the convention on Wednesday, as will United Autoworkers President Bob King.

“Things don’t happen real fast, but we are moving in the right direction,” said Bock with AFSCME. “It may not be everything we love, but we recognize what’s possible, given the challenges.”