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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.


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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.

Kari Lydersen

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for various publications, including the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. She can be reached at

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