By Karen Stokes
President Barack Obama celebrated Labor Day with the working people of Milwaukee at Laborfest 2014 at Henry Maier Festival Park.
The annual event is to acknowledge the history and culture of the labor movement.
The president spoke for approximately 30 minutes on the economy, jobs, the successes and the challenges facing working Americans and the future of our country.
“It’s great to be back in Milwaukee,” said President Obama as he greeted an enthusiastic crowd of 6,000 supporters at Milwaukee’s Laborfest.
“We are here to celebrate something that sometimes the American people take for granted, the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, minimum wage, and weekends like this one.
This didn’t happen by accident. It happened because American workers organized for it and fought for it,” President Obama said.
The president landed at the 128th Air Refueling Wing at General Mitchell International Airport. Governor Scott Walker greeted him, along with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Congresswoman Gwen Moore. Along with him was Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke met with the president privately at the Maier Festival Park prior to President Obama’s speech, but did not appear with him on stage.
According to Sheila Cochran, Milwaukee Area Labor Council leader, this was the third visit for President Obama to Laborfest — the first time as a democratic candidate for president in 2008 and the second time as president in 2010.
“I think it sends a clear message; I think it says we are critical,” Cochran said regarding the president’s multiple visits to Laborfest. “It says we are important.”
“This country gave me a chance, it gave Michelle a chance, I believe in the American Dream because I lived it,” said the president.
“After all that unions have done to build and protect working Americans, I know it’s frustrating when people have the gall to blame you for the problems facing working Americans, I know you’ve got some experience with that around here.”
In 2011, Scott Walker proposed the collective bargaining reform bill, Act 10, legislation that impacted compensation, health insurance, retirement, and sick leave, and stripped away the ability for public sector union members to collectively bargain.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin’s union membership rate was 20.9 percent in 1989, at its peak, compared to 11.2 percent in 2012, after Act 10.
“It’s no secret the struggle we have faced, here in the State of Wisconsin,” Cochran said, ”We are here, we are strong, we are united, we are labor.”
The president added that if he were looking for a job that allowed him to build some security for his family, he would join a union.
“I would want a union looking out for me,” he said. “Unions still play a vital role in protecting the nation’s workers.”
When the president mentioned Republican opposition to policies that he has introduced to help American working families, the crowd began to “boo”.
“Don’t boo…vote,” said President Obama, which led to roaring cheers and applause. “It’s easy to boo, I want you to vote.”
The president continued, “If we had a congress that cared about policies that actually help working people, I promise you we could get everything done that we’ve talked about doing.
In fact, they oppose things they used to be for, like building roads and bridges, now suddenly, we can’t build roads.
But until we have that Congress, it’s up to us to fight for these policies.”
The president had the opportunity to talk about the numerous positive developments in the economy, which have made America stronger.
In 53 months, nearly 10 million new jobs were created. In the last six months more than 200,000 jobs were created each month. This is the first time this has happened since 1997.
Construction is rebounding. Energy and technology are booming, and manufacturing is steadily creating jobs for the first time since the 1990’s.
The president also mentioned that another major success that makes America stronger is that America invested in homegrown energy. America is the world’s number one producer of gas and oil. America produces more oil than Russia or Saudi Arabia. For the first time in 20 years, America produces more oil than we buy from other countries.
He wanted Milwaukee to know that America is stronger because millions more Americans have the peace of mind of quality, affordable health insurance. The crowd applauded enthusiastically for that information.
President Obama joked that, “It was worth it. Every gray hair was worth it.”
By almost every measure, the American economy and American worker are better off than when he took office.
“There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about America,” he said.
The president addressed a diverse audience of union and nonunion members. Black, white, Asian and Latino, Democrats and Republicans who were all very interested in what the president had to say and many in attendance were feeling optimistic.
“I love to hear him speak. I am so inspired,” said Lashell Drake, volunteer for Laborfest. “He helps set the agenda back on course. He gave us everything we needed to know about how well the country is doing. His opponents have a lot of money to get their message out in the media. I hope what the president said gets as much media attention as all the other negative stuff.”
Linda McFerrin, Vice President, Campaign at United Way of Greater Milwaukee, said, “I loved it. It was a great speech. What he said was so important.”
The president rallied the crowd to continue to fight for what they believe in.
“If you work full time, you should not be living in poverty,” President Obama stated.
The president is calling for Congress to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to keep fighting.
At the beginning of the last century, people fought against the idea of a 40-hour work week, they fought against weekends.
Eighty years ago, people fought against the idea of Social Security. Fifty years ago, people fought against the idea of Medicare, we won those fights,” said the president.
He continued, “We’ve got struggles, we’ve got work to do, but there’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic about America. In our story of progress, there has always been America, with the courage to organize and march for what they believe in.”
The president’s closing comment to the energized crowd was, “America’s best days are still ahead. I believe it, you need to believe it too. Let’s get to work.”