In Democratic convention race, labor unions sided with Chicago over Atlanta

Chicago's reputation as a pro-labor city with plenty of unionized hotels surely played a big role in President Joe Biden's decision to award its bid for the Democratic National Convention over Atlanta, the capital of a right-to-work state. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Chicago's reputation as a pro-labor city with plenty of unionized hotels surely played a big role in President Joe Biden's decision to award its bid for the Democratic National Convention over Atlanta, the capital of a right-to-work state. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

The news that Chicago had landed next year’s Democratic National Convention over Atlanta disappointed local elected officials, but for weeks there had been speculation that the influence of labor unions was tipping the contest in the Windy City’s favor.

President Joe Biden’s pro-union sensibilities were on display when he launched his 2020 presidential bid in a Pittsburgh union hall. Later in the campaign, he pledged to be the “most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” by making it easier for workers to organize and collectively bargain.

Those efforts have continued during his presidency, with Biden inviting union representatives to White House celebrations and acknowledging their support at every turn. A senior Biden administration official said the union issue was among a handful of factors that worked in Chicago’s favor.

“One certainly was labor,” the official said. “This president has said on more than one occasion that he wants to be the union president, the labor president, the working-man president. And Chicago and Illinois represent that very, very strong labor presence.”

Strong fundraising led by Illinois’ billionaire governor, J.B. Pritzker, and the Democrats’ “blue wall” in the Midwest were among the other factors that benefited Chicago, the Biden official said. But labor unions had been among the most vocal critics of Atlanta’s bid.

During the review process, Chicago was able to tout itself as a pro-union city. Atlanta leaders, who are Democrats, found their hands tied by state laws that are perceived as having a negative impact on union membership.

Georgia is among 27 right-to-work states, meaning that joining a union cannot be a requirement for a person to get or keep a job. Such laws have been championed for protecting workers from union pressures, but unions have said such laws depress membership and lead to lower wages.

During last month’s State of the Union address, Biden urged Congress to pass legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize.

“Workers have a right to form a union,” he said. “And let’s guarantee all workers a living wage.”

Support from unions in the form of money and massive on-the-ground voter mobilization efforts helped Biden take back states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that had gone to Republican Donald Trump in 2016.

Labor organizations donated $27.5 million to Biden’s campaign or groups backing him, according to the website Open Secrets, compared with less than $360,000 for Trump.

Unions have been major donors to Democratic candidates for decades. For instance, the 2018 and 2022 gubernatorial campaigns of Stacey Abrams in Georgia received millions of dollars in union backing.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock also benefited from union support, both in dollars and in a massive get-out-the-vote effort. He later faced criticism when his campaign held his election night and runoff victory parties at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, a non-union hotel.

Democrats have continued to build momentum in recent state and local elections, including a crucial Wisconsin Supreme Court race earlier this month, and liberals were happy that their chosen candidate for Chicago mayor, Brandon Johnson, beat an opponent who was once aligned with Republicans.

Union leaders in that region put a full press on national Democratic leaders to select Chicago. The Chicago Federation of Labor began running digital ads supporting the city’s convention bid in February. A 30-second video accompanying the ads on Facebook touted Chicago as more reflective of Democratic values.

“Chicago is the hometown of the American labor movement,” the narrator intones. “We lead the country in union hotels, event centers and worker advocacy. When you come to Chicago, you’re in the heart of democracy, progress and the American spirit.”

According to the Facebook Ad Library, the federation spent up to $15,000 on that ad between Jan. 25 and Feb. 10, garnering more than a half-million impressions. Three-fourths of the ads were viewed by people living in Washington, which is where Biden spends most of his time. Similar ads touting Chicago’s strong union roots also ran on Twitter and YouTube.

According to the Fair Hotels site hosted by hospitality unions, Chicago has 45 unionized hotels. Atlanta has only two — downtown’s Hyatt Regency and Westin Peachtree — where workers can negotiate with management on issues such as compensation, health care and retirement funds.

Nineteen senior labor officials wrote Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison a letter in February that acknowledged Atlanta’s strengths but panned the city’s response to concerns about the lack of union hotels.

“We are proud to represent members in Georgia and recognize the great cultural and political value of Atlanta, as well as the civil rights legacy and ongoing work for racial justice being led by activists throughout the state,” they wrote. “But the importance of having many union hotels for a Democratic convention is well known, and the city has done nothing during its long convention bid to address the problem.”

In the end, the unions’ lobbying effort might not have been Biden’s deciding factor. But it was likely among the many he weighed prior to announcing his decision Monday.

Harrison wouldn’t say what put Chicago over the top, and instead he released a statement congratulating Atlanta leaders for their monthslong effort to land the convention and acknowledging the city’s continued relevance in the party’s future.

“All of the cities that were in the running for the 2024 convention would have been extraordinary hosts and told a compelling story about our country, including Atlanta,” he said. “... As a key battleground and a new early state in the Democratic primary calendar, I know that Georgia’s Democratic leaders will continue to play an integral part in the 2024 election and I am so grateful for their partnership.”

About the Author