Labor Day in Old Milwaukee: Obama and the Urgency of 'Our Cause'

When it comes to labor, Milwaukee sits perhaps a bit in the shadow of
Chicago to the south. But Milwaukee has a rich labor history of its
own, including a five-day sweeping industrial work stoppage in the 1886
fight for the eight-hour day and the later success of "Fighting Bob" La
Follette's Progressive Party. Milwaukee is still a bastion of union jobs
at plants including Harley-Davidson, where a tentative deal was reached Friday to narrowly avoid moving production of the famous motorcycles.(See Roger Bybee's blog about the issue here.)

Hence it was fitting that President Obama spent Labor Day at Milwaukee's annual Laborfest, where he announced a $50 billion jobs plan
centered around transportation infrastructure including the
construction or rehabbing of 150,000 miles of roads, 4,000 miles of rail
and 150 miles of air runways. (Read his speech here).

Obama described the economy as a car driven into a ditch by
Republicans, and decried their hopes for a case of collective amnesia
that would help them get the keys back.

Obama also visited Milwaukee's Laborfest during his
presidential campaign two years ago. This year, Milwaukee was likely
chosen by the administration largely because of two tight races in
upcoming elections - for U.S. Senator Russ Feingold's seat and the
governor's mansion. Feingold is the only running incumbent whose Senate
seat is considered up for grabs with the potential to tip the political
balance in the Senate.

And popular Democratic Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett is running for
governor against either Republican Milwaukee County Executive Scott
Walker or former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann. Both Feingold and Barrett are
being significantly outspent by their wealthy opponents,
and recent polls have placed them in extremely tight races. Polls also
show Obama's support in Wisconsin dropping, to below 50 percent in an
August Rasmussen report.

The Associated Press notes:

Wisconsin has already lost 35,000 manufacturing jobs since Obama
took office in January 2009, and 182,000 such jobs since 2000.
Statewide unemployment, at 7.8 percent in July, had hit a 26-year high
of 9.4 percent in March 2009 once the recession took hold. As it has
nationwide, the sour economy in Wisconsin has emboldened Republicans
who see an opportunity to not only gain back seats long held by
Democrats but also hurt Obama's chances of re-election in 2012.

In his speech, Obama espoused the importance of the middle class and pledged to revive it, saying:

America cannot have a strong, growing economy without a strong,
growing middle class, and the chance for everybody, no matter how
humble their beginnings, to join that middle class. A middle class
built on the idea that if you work hard and live up to your
responsibilities, you can get ahead - and enjoy some basic guarantees
in life. A good job that pays a good wage. Health care that'll be there
when you get sick. A secure retirement even if you're not rich. An
education that'll give our kids a better life than we had. These are
simple ideas. American ideas.

He took swipes at Republican ideas of trickle-down economics, tax breaks for the rich and trust in high finance:

Well, anyone who thinks we can move this economy forward with a few
doing well at the top, hoping it'll trickle down to working folks
running faster and faster just to keep up - they just haven't studied
our history. We didn't become the most prosperous country in the world
by rewarding greed and recklessness. We didn't come this far by letting
special interests run wild. We didn't do it by just gambling and
chasing paper profits on Wall Street. We did it by producing goods we
could sell; we did it with sweat and effort and innovation. We did it
by investing in the people who built this country from the ground up -
workers, and middle-class families, and small business owners. We did
it by out-working, out-educating, and out-competing everyone else.

The infrastructure plan and a larger shift to American-made products
and "green jobs" will make this happen, Obama promised, telling
Wisconsin residents "we want to see the solar panels and wind turbines
and electric cars of tomorrow manufactured here."

The transportation infrastructure plan still needs Congressional approval to become reality, a challenging task given
staunch opposition by Republicans and even Democrats leery of raising
taxes or inflaming critics of the previous stimulus package.

Meanwhile, the Harley-Davidson saga is likely not over. United Steel
Workers members still need to vote on the agreement which would likely
protect the 1,340 Harley-Davidson jobs in Wisconsin; the company had
threatened to move to Kansas City or elsewhere in the U.S. Even after
this agreement, the company is likely to continue pushing for cuts. A
year ago, workers at the company's York, Pa. factory agreed to massive job cuts to avoid manufacturing moved to Kentucky.

In Milwaukee Obama acknowledged American workers are in dire
straits, invoking the Great Depression and plant closings of decades
past to note: "The problems facing working families are nothing new.
But they are more serious than ever. And that makes our cause more
urgent than ever."

Wisconsin residents may take heart from their past, as the Wisconsin Labor History Society website states after its long chronicle of luminary moments in state history:

Labor's history tells us that the struggle is a constant one-often
in frustration, but always seeking to move forward to build a better
life for the workers of future generations.