In The News
Backstage and upfront with Obama at Laborfest
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
With 5,000 labor activists down-front and twice as many curious stretching to the back of the outdoor venue, about 15,000 to 17,000 persons – depending on who was counting – packed the final event of Laborfest Sept. 1 – a remarkable visit and speech from Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, arranged just two days before.
A powerful lineup of speakers and the senator from Illinois himself paused to thank Secretary-Treasurer Sheila Cochran and other leaders of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council for helping organize such an assemblage of regular citizens and union members at the last minute. The Obama campaign gave away tickets and union leaders had done the same, all for free and all snapped up even faster than expected.
Obama said this would not be a political speech because Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on Louisiana as he spoke. He called for prayers and financial support and emphasized that his website provided a direct link to Red Cross contributions.
His theme of being “our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper” was outright plagiarized the next day or two at the GOP convention, but hardly with such eloquence or ability. That alone – the ability to think on his feet while empathizing with his heart, the demonstration of true experience, surrounding himself with top advisers but making careful decisions quickly -- could hardly do other than remind voters that there were stark differences between him and GOP candidate John McCain, also a US senator.
In a 14 minute talk that reporters called one of the best he has made – combining several common themes but put together that day on plane flights and then adjusted to circumstances and new information -- Obama connected his support of labor and the Employee Free Choice Act to the loss of the formative spirit of caring that had long identified the United States.
“I had planned to come here and talk about organized labor, to recognize the labor movement as . . . the backbone of our economy,” he admitted, drawing a laugh when he talked of the people who approach him and ask “Why do you support unions so strongly?” His rejoinder “And I have to ask, ‘Why don't you?’”
Rattling off a litany of organized labor’s accomplishments – the 40 hour work week, minimum wage, health care and pensions, worker safety laws. – he reminded the local audience and the abundant TV audience, “Even if you're not a member, you've benefited from a union. So I wanted to speak about the middle class and how we sustain it.”
But with “our neighbors along the Gulf Coast once again under siege, (this is not) a night for political speech.”
“In times of need,” of natural tragedy, “there are no red states or blue states, just the United States of America.”
But “I do want to point out the connection of that spirit of unity and the spirit that brought about the union movement.”
Recalling the early days “when a worker could be fired any time” or sent to the poorhouse or discriminated again, “Somebody got an idea: Alone we are weak but united we are strong.”
Building cheers with his measured examples of what happened then and what happens now under union organizing, he repeated, “Alone we are weak but united we are strong. That's why we call it the UNION movement.”
“Here's the thing. That spirit I want it back. That spirit of looking out for one another.”
He noted ruefully, “That spirit is most evident in terms of great tragedy, when national disaster strikes and takes it out of the realm of politics. But that spirit can’t be just restricted to moments of great catastrophe.”
“I know there are people going through their own quiet storms,” he said, with a mounting ferocity of examples -- people seeing “their jobs shipped overseas,” or “seniors who don't know how to pay home heating bills,” of people unable to fill their gas tanks, or young people ready “to go to college but don’t have the money” -- there are also young people right here in Milwaukee, he reminded the audience, with “no prospects for the future,” seeing the only paths “open to them the casket or a jail cell.”
“All across America there are quiet storms taking place,” Obama summarized to increasing roars of empathy, and “that’s why I’m running for president of the United States.”
It was a powerful speech, perhaps more powerful since the spiritual base dominated. Afterward he made time to greet the crowd and the gallery of selected supporters behind him before dashing behind the Marcus Amphitheater black curtain.
Obama had actually been preceded by other strong speeches, particularly from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who was radiant with pleasure at Obama’s visit. Then came the governor and both senators, then Rep. Gwen Moore who recalled Wisconsin’s pioneer place in labor history, all followed by other speakers providing ways to support the campaign or workers who were actually suffering job loss under the current administration’s indifference.
This was a thunderous night in Milwaukee. Even though the preliminary speeches were brief in sum they took twice as long as did Obama’s.
But those who were there, noted one elderly gentleman in the crowd, “will remember this night forever.” The crowd was still talking and planning the future as they returned to homes and families while it was still light outside.
For Laborfest staff and the Obama campaign organizers, who underwent considerable stress and haste in pulling the occasion together, the smoothness was double remarkable – a 6 p.m. event that actually began within five minutes and sent Obama back to his home in Chicago in about an hour.
Obama, in fact, had touched down an hour before he spoke. That allowed him to meet backstage with a range of Wisconsin political leaders (several who had backed him long before most Democrats did, notably Barrett, Doyle and Moore). Also present were a chosen group of labor leaders and just families who had been invited to speak with him or pose for photos under the watchful eyes of three security teams (the Secret Service, the Obama campaign itself and the Milwaukee police department).