CHARLOTTE, N.C. – While local residents flooded the streets of Charlotte Monday ahead of the Democratic convention, union activists were trying to break down stereotypes and advance their cause by offering the public a chance to “hug a thug.”
The free hugs and “thank you cards” at the “Hug-A-Thug” booth in uptown Charlotte were part of several quirky features at this year’s Carolina Fest, an unofficial kickoff to the convention and a celebration on the side of Southern cuisine – pulled pork, sweet tea, fried pickles and all.
The North Carolina AFL-CIO, which ran the booth, said the set-up was meant to help crush the image of union members as “thugs” – a misperception largely perpetuated by Republican lawmakers, they said.
“We’re passing out free hugs to members of the public, reminding them that union members are hard-working Americans and we make America work just like they do,” the group’s communications director, Jeremy Sprinkle, told FoxNews.com. “We're saying have a free union hug, bust the myth about thugs and together we make America work.”
Aside from offering free hugs, the AFL-CIO also sought to enhance its image by showing videos of union members involved in their communities.
“The bottom line is unions are responsible for a strong and growing middle class,” Sprinkle said.
The site of this year’s Democratic convention is a controversial one for unions. North Carolina’s “right to work” legislation prohibits unions from forcing members to join or pay dues, which opponents say leads to “free riders.” Though the law is currently on the books in 22 other states, North Carolina is considered the least unionized in the country.
In response to the DNC’s choice of Charlotte as its host city, the nation’s biggest labor groups chose not to support the 2012 Democratic convention in the same way they did four years ago.
“We won’t be buying skyboxes … or bringing a big staff contingent to the convention,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka reportedly said in a letter to executive council officials last month.
Still, the state’s AFL-CIO had a lively presence in Charlotte on Monday, as thousands of convention-goers converged on the city.
“Working people are in a profoundly unique moment – we’re having a national conversation about inequality, and it has sparked the question of what kind of country we want to be,” state AFL-CIO President James Andrew said in a statement. “We believe it’s absolutely the right moment to reintroduce people to unions and to our shared values about hard work, fairness and equality."
Cristina Corbin is a Fox News reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.