President Barack Obama has only occasionally mentioned unions during his term of office, but his speech to Milwaukee unionists on Labor Day was filled with references to labor and working people. Many in the labor movement would like to hear more from him on the importance of labor in America, but more importantly, to actually push for legislation that would help unions to widen their influence, like the Employee Free Choice Act.
Following are excerpts of his speech.
“The problems facing working families, they’re nothing new. But they are more serious than ever. And that makes our cause more urgent than ever. For generations, it was the great American working class, the great American middle class that made our economy the envy of the world. It’s got to be that way again.
“It was working men and women who made the 20th century the American century. It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of middle-class security all bear the union label.
“Eight million Americans lost their jobs in this recession. And even though we’ve had eight straight months of private sector job growth, the new jobs haven’t been coming fast enough. Now, here’s the honest truth, the plain truth. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no quick fix to these problems. I knew when I was running for office, and I certainly knew by the time I was sworn in, I knew it would take time to reverse the damage of a decade worth of policies that saw too few people being able to climb into the middle class, too many people falling behind.
“We all knew that it would take more time than any of us want to dig ourselves out of this hole created by this economic crisis. But on this Labor Day, there are two things I want you to know. Number one: I am going to keep fighting every single day, every single hour, every single minute, to turn this economy around and put people back to work and renew the American Dream, not just for your family, not just for all our families, but for future generations. That I can guarantee you.
“Number two – I believe this with every fiber of my being: 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, if you live up to your responsibilities, then you can get ahead; that you can enjoy some basic guarantees in life. A good job that pays a good wage. Health care that will be there when you get sick. A secure retirement even if you’re not rich. An education that will give your children a better life than we had. These are simple ideas. These are American ideas. These are union ideas. That’s what we’re fighting for
“Now, anybody who thinks that we can move this economy forward with just a few folks at the top doing well, hoping that it’s going to trickle down to working people who are running faster and faster just to keep up, you’ll never see it. If that’s what you’re waiting for, you should stop waiting, because it’s never happened in our history. That’s not how America was built. It wasn’t built with a bunch of folks at the top doing well and everybody else scrambling. We didn’t become the most prosperous country in the world just by rewarding greed and recklessness. We didn’t come this far by letting the special interests run wild. We didn’t do it just by gambling and chasing paper profits on Wall Street. We built this country by making things, by producing goods we could sell. We did it with sweat and effort and innovation. We did it on the assembly line and at the construction site.
“We did it by investing in the people who built this country from the ground up – the workers, middle-class families, small business owners. We out-worked folks and we out-educated folks and we out-competed everybody else. That’s how we built America.
And, Milwaukee, that’s what we’re going to do again. That’s been at the heart what we’ve been doing over these last 20 months: building our economy on a new foundation so that our middle class doesn’t just survive this crisis – I want it to thrive. I want it to be stronger than it was before.
And over the last two years, that’s meant taking on some powerful interests – some powerful interests who had been dominating the agenda in Washington for a very long time. And they’re not always happy with me. They talk about me like a dog. That’s not in my prepared remarks, but it’s true.
There are no better workers than American workers. I’ll put my money on you any day of the week. And when the naysayers said, well, you can’t save the auto industry, just go ahead and let hundreds of thousands of jobs vanish, we said we’re going to stand by those workers. If the management is willing to make tough choices, if everybody is willing to come together, I’m confident that the American auto industry can compete once again – and today, that industry is on the way back. They said no, we said yes to the American worker. They’re coming back.
Now, let me tell you, another thing we’ve done is to make long-overdue investments in upgrading our outdated, our inefficient national infrastructure. We’re talking roads. We’re talking bridges. We’re talking dams, levees. But we’re also talking a smart electric grid that can bring clean energy to new areas. We’re talking about broadband Internet so that everybody is plugged in. We’re talking about high-speed rail lines required to compete in a 21st century economy. We’re talking investments in tomorrow that are creating hundreds of thousands of private sector jobs right now.
Because of these investments, and the tens of thousands of projects they spurred all across the country, the battered construction sector actually grew last month for the first time in a very long time.
But, you know, the folks here in the trades know what I’m talking about – nearly one in five construction workers are unemployed. One in five. Nobody has been hit harder than construction workers. And a lot of those folks, they had lost their jobs in manufacturing and went into construction; now they’ve lost their jobs again.
It doesn’t do anybody any good when so many hardworking Americans have been idled for months, even years, at a time when there is so much of America that needs rebuilding. So, that’s why, Milwaukee, today, I am announcing a new plan for rebuilding and modernizing America’s roads and rails and runways for the long term. I want America to have the best infrastructure in the world. We used to have the best infrastructure in the world. We can have it again. We are going to make it happen.
Look, the bottom line is this: These guys, (Republicans) they just don’t want to give up on that economic philosophy that they have been peddling for most of the last decade. You know that philosophy – you cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires; you cut all the rules and regulations for special interests; and then you just cut working folks loose – you cut them loose to fend for themselves.
You remember they called it the ownership society, but what it really boiled down to was, if you couldn’t find a job, you couldn’t afford college, you were born poor, your insurance company dropped you even though your kid was sick, that you were on your own.
Well, you know what, that philosophy didn’t work out so well for middle-class families all across America. It didn’t work out so well for our country. All it did was rack up record deficits and result in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. I mean, think about it, we have tried what they’re peddling. We did it for 10 years. We ended up with the worst economy since the 1930s and record deficits to boot. It’s not like we haven’t tried what they’re trying to sell us.
Now, I’m bringing this up not because I’m trying to re-litigate the past; I’m bringing it up because I don’t want to re-live the past.”