Labor Day 2010: Obama Returns to Milwaukee to Make Case to Working Families

Roger Bybee

Then-Senator Barack Obama speaks on Labor Day 2008, with then-AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

When President Barack Obama, Labor Secretary Hilary Solis, and new AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka come to Milwaukee, Wisc., on Monday to deliver Labor Day addresses, they will be greeted with a very large, pumped-up crowd of union members and their families.

Milwaukee, with its traditions of unionism and working class struggle going back to at least 1886 when seven workers were shot down fighting for the 8‑hour day, is the perfect setting for Obama to talk about helping working people get through the current, lingering recession. The city also offers one of the nation’s most lively and spirited labor days, with union contingents in different-colored Labor Day T‑shirts expressing solidarity while marching along with their families.

The crowd for Obama, Solis, and Trumka will be enthusiastic, but also hungry for both economic and political answers.

Monday will mark Obama’s second Labor Day visit to Milwaukee.

Candidate Obama spoke here in 2008, directly following a powerful talk by Andy Nirschl, a United Steel Workers local president whose productive Kimberly Paper plant was being needlessly shut down by a New York-based hedge fund whose executives included Dan Quayle and former Bush Treasurery Secretary John Snow.

On that sunlit afternoon, Obama spoke moving and memorably to a crowd of at least 20,000:

America was built by its laborers, but today our workers are struggling just to get by in an economy that no longer works for them. That’s why we can’t afford four more years of the failed George Bush economic policies — policies that Sen. McCain has proudly embraced and promises to continue.

It’s time we had a president who will stand up for working men and women by building an economy that rewards not just wealth, but work and the workers who create it. It’s time you had a partner in the White House who knows that the struggles facing working families can’t be solved by spending billions of dollars on more tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy CEOs, and that hardworking families need immediate relief.


But Obama has clearly been unable to meet all the expectations he generated, particurlarly with the George W. Bush-induced Wall St. meltdown that occurred only a week later in September 2008. He has also been hampered by a corps of Wall-Street-bred advisors who are tone-deaf to the concerns of working people.

As a result, Obama will have to utilize all of his extraordinary skills – and a
much higher level of political boldness.

First, he must not only reach many should-be Democrats inclined to protest” with their votes by choosing Republican candidates.

Second, President Obama must recognize that one effect of the Great Recession has been to move families from collective struggle for the common good to individual survival for their families.

When this syndrome is hitting sophisticated community leaders like the woman profiled below, we can see that our challenge is very serious:

Traci Carnes, who last year lost her house and her job as the executive director of a nonprofit housing organization in Lancaster, S.C., is among those who will have to navigate the system if they want to participate in the midterm elections.

Ms. Carnes said she used to keep abreast of politics and community issues, always finding the time to vote. Now, voting is one of the activities she calls luxuries.”

When I started losing everything, you are just focusing on that bottom rung on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” she said, referring to the popular theory of human motivation.

Ms. Carnes, 36, said that after losing her home, she and her 13-year-old son briefly moved into a hotel. She is now staying at a relative’s house…

President Obama — and the labor movement — thus have a major task facing them this Labor Day as we look toward to Election Day in November.


The economy seems only slightly less frozen up” than it did right after the Wall Street collapse. Corporations like Harley-Davidson — currently threatening to move some 1,700 jobs out of Milwaukee — have discovered how to stay profitable by squeezing more work out of the same number of badly-intimidated workers who remain.

Mega-banks, instead of loaning out money to re-start the economy, are simply making profits by drawing interest from all the money they have stashed in Federal Reserve accounts. They have also shown little mercy in the face of the foreclosure epidemic.

The economy badly needs a new stimulus – which will be tough to win against the lock-stepping Republicans and conservative Democrats. But Obama, in my view, also needs to challenge Corporate America on the off-shoring of jobs and the bailed-out banks on their virtual unwillingness to lend to credit-wroth small businesses.


Second, Obama and the Democrats are being victimized by a media syndrome which predicts that voters will rebel against the recession by voting against incumbents, who just happen to be Democrats. This line of reasoning gets repeated so incessantly that it starts to sound almost logical.

The mainstream media has gone beyond its usual low-level reporting of elections as horse-races devoid of critical issues. It has moved into new territory, continually reinforcing the notion that the most probable way that resentment over the recession will be expressed is in voting for Republicans.

This style of coverage is particularly egregious because there is almost no
discussion of what the Republicans intend to do with any newfound power.

But based on public comments from Republicans thus far, it is clear that a vote for the Republicans will translate into a vote for the depression/recession-producing policies of Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush.

Any form of economic stimulus to re-start the economy will be slashed in the name of deficit-cutting. Safety-net programs for the unemployed, like extended benefits and healthcare coverage, will be dismissed as discouraging perfectly healthy unemployed people from taking jobs that they consider beneath themselves.

The new job-creation program” will be more tax cuts for the rich, an absurd
solution when products aren’t selling because consumers are either unemployed, worried about losing their jobs, or have suffered pay cuts. The rich will merely sit on their money, or invest it in ways that will never stimulate the domestic economy.

Essentially, the inequality that grew especially under George W. Bush is a major barrier to recovery, and will only grow worse with the Republicans’ current plans:

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich lays out the problem clearly:

In the late 1970s, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent took in 23.5 percent of total income….

The rich spend a much smaller proportion of their incomes than the rest of us. So when they get a disproportionate share of total income, the economy is robbed of the demand it needs to keep growing and creating jobs.

What’s more, the rich don’t necessarily invest their earnings and savings in the American economy; they send them anywhere around the globe where they’ll summon the highest returns — sometimes that’s here, but often it’s the Cayman Islands, China or elsewhere.

The major media’s appalling failure to cover the Republicans’ intentions is an ongoing case of journalistic malpractice, and they must be forcefully called into account by every labor and progressive spokesperson.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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