ST. PAUL — Barack Obama will return to the traditional heartlands of the American trade union movement on this Labor Day, marching in and speaking at the close of the annual Labor Day Parade in Detroit and then flying later to a huge LaborFest celebration in Milwaukee.
The Detroit appearance brings the Democratic nominee back to the spot where the party’s presidential candidates historically began their fall campaigns.
It was in Detroit in 1960 that a young John Kennedy, who had defeated labor-favorite Hubert Humphrey in that year’s Democratic primaries, won over union members with a speech that embraced the union movement with a passion and a precision that helped him to win the confidence of working-class voters.
“I welcome the support of working men and women everywhere and I am proud of the endorsement of the AFL-CIO,” JFK told a crowd of 100,000 in the city’s Cadillac Square. “For the labor movement is people. The goals of the labor movement are the goals for all Americans and their enemies are the enemies of progress.”
Kennedy followed in the footsteps of Democratic nominees Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson in choosing to open his campaign in Detroit with a warm embrace of the labor movement.
As the years passed, however, Democratic nominees sought to distance themselves from unions.
Jimmy Carter chose not to launch his 1976 presidential campaign in Detroit – in part out of respect for the fact that his Republican rival, Gerald Ford, was from Michigan. But Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton and, most recently, John Kerry, had no similar excuse when they chose to dodge Detroit.
Obama, who is battling Republican John McCain for the votes of the still reasonably-heavily unionized states of Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, is returning to the labor heartlands with his Detroit and Milwaukee campaign stops. (Huge crowds are expected at both gatherings; in fact, tickets for the Milwaukee event were grabbed up days ago.)
And Obama will be echoing Kennedy’s embrace of trade unionism.
The 2008 Democratic nominee says in his Labor Day message that, “It’s time you had a president who honors organized labor, who has walked on picket lines, who doesn’t choke on the word ‘union,’ who let’s our unions do what they do best and organize our workers and who will finally make the Employee Free Choice Act (legislation that would remove barriers to organizing) the law of the land.”
He also says, “America was built by its laborers, but today our workers are struggling just to get by in an economy thatno longer works for them. That’s why we cannot afford four more years of the failed George Bush economic policies – policies that Senator McCain has proudly embraced and promises to continue.”
The statements echo Obama’s newly-populist message – debuted in his acceptance speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention. “The struggles facing working families working families can’t be solved by spending billions of dollars on more tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy CEOs,” says Obama, who will be promising policies that eschew tax breaks for companies that move jobs out of the U.S. and promises to redirect them to companies that create jobs in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.
For his part, John McCain will won’t be speaking at Labor Day events. Instead, he’ll be taking a bus tour through Toledo, a community devastated by manufacturing job cuts since the enactment of trade policies that favor the outsourcing of factory work.
McCain is making his way to St. Paul, where the Republican National Convention formally opens today – in somewhat constrained form because of concern about holding a party when Hurricane Gustav is slamming into Gulf Coast communities that were so damaged three years ago by Hurricane Katrina and a slow response to the storm on the part the Bush administration.
The biggest event in the Twin Cities this Labor Day will not be the Republican convention, however.
It will be a “Take Back Labor Day” festival at Harriet Island in St. Paul, featuring Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Mos Def, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and other musicians as well as speeches by Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern and other top labor leaders who are ardent Obama backers.
An estimated 20,000 people are expected at the event, which is not expected to be on-message for the GOP’s convention week.