Biden makes a splash with union workers during Labor Day visit to Milwaukee
In glorious sunshine at Milwaukee’s first official Labor Day celebration since 2019, President Joe Biden rallied 6,000 union members in a speech befitting the holiday’s unofficial role: kicking off the home stretch of the fall election campaign.
Biden’s speech, delivered at Laborfest on the grounds of the Milwaukee Summerfest, was an opportunity for the president to tout legislative victories and recap his speech last week in Philadelphia, when he warned that out of loyalty to the he former President Donald Trump, the dominant voices in the Republican Party embrace violence and reject democracy.
The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to block the November 2020 election results in which Biden defeated Trump was “an attack on American democracy and everything we stand for,” Biden said.
He also looked at a wholehearted endorsement of unions in the American workplace.
Two of the speakers who preceded him — AFL-CIO National President Liz Shuler and U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh — hailed Biden as a champion of organized labor.
Shuler called him “the most pro-union president in history.” Walsh, who entered politics after a career in the Labor Union, agreed. “There has never been a more pro-worker, pro-worker president in the history of the United States,” he said. “President Joe Biden is our champion for workers across his country.”
When it was his turn, Biden warmly claimed the banner, crediting union support with helping him win his first U.S. Senate seat at age 29. “The middle class built America – everyone knows that. But unions built the middle class,” Biden said to thunderous applause.
Biden later recalled when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in the 1930s, establishing the federal right of workers to form unions. “He didn’t say it was OK to vote [for unions]”, Biden said. “The language said: We should encourage unions.” As the applause rang out, he raised his voice: “Well, I encourage unions!” he said, to more cheers .
By the time Biden spoke, others on the podium had already referenced the iconic pieces of legislation that marked Biden’s first two years in office.
U.S. Representative Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) pointed to the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill which, among many other items, includes provisions to replace lead pipes in utility systems. water supply across the country.
Walsh boasted that the bipartisan CHIPS Act to boost the national microprocessor industry would lead to “thousands of new jobs, thousands of good union jobs all over the United States of America”.
Biden pointed to both laws. He also touted the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act, including provisions allowing Medicare to negotiate prices for expensive prescription drugs, capping prescription drug costs for Medicare patients, and requiring most corporations to pay a minimum income tax of 15%.
He noted that Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) voted against the measures, particularly pointing to savings on prescription drugs because it would “punish” the prescription drug industry. “Come on, man! Biden said, to hearty laughter from the crowd.
Early on, Biden reaffirmed his evocation of the United States as a country “of unity and optimism – not a nation of division, violence and hatred as has been preached by others”.
As he did last week in Philadelphia, Biden has sought to separate “MAGA Republicans” who have defended Trump’s continued lies about the 2020 election results from other GOP members.
“I want to be very clear up front – not all Republicans are MAGA Republicans. Not all Republicans embrace this extreme ideology. I know this because I have been able to work with mainstream Republicans my entire career. But, he said, the “extreme MAGA Republicans in Congress have chosen to back down, full of anger and violence, hatred and division. But together we can and must choose another path.
He returned to the subject later, telling the crowd that “we remain in the battle for America’s soul” when a disrupter interrupted him. “God loves you,” Biden said, and as others in the audience booed the heckler, the president said, “Let him go – no, no, no… Let him go, listen, everyone has the right to be an idiot.”
Getting serious again, he concluded his speech by recalling the attack on the Capitol and the deaths that occurred — criticizing Johnson along the way for describing the day as a “peaceful protest.” “There is no democracy where you can be pro-insurgency and pro-democracy,” Biden said.
The enthusiastic applause suggested that the president had made a splash with the crowd. Governor Tony Evers, running for re-election this fall, was also warmly applauded.
Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, who is running to unseat Johnson in the Senate, appeared at Labor Fest earlier in the day but did not join the president on stage. Speakers, including Biden, congratulated him from the podium, to cheers from the crowd.
At the end of the speeches, Ross Winklbauer, a former United Steel Workers union leader, called the event “fabulous” and said he was optimistic that Biden and the Democratic Party would hold out in the November election without losing either. chambers of Congress, defying what have been the predictions of most political pundits until recently.
Pam Fendt, chairwoman of the Milwaukee County Labor Council, which organizes the annual Laborfest event, said the group estimated about 6,000 people attended. Until Election Day, she said, unions will use organizing tactics to encourage voters to vote for Democrats.
“He speaks one on one,” she said. “Finding common ground on what people need in their quality of life.”
Stu Wilson, a sales agent for Sheet Metal Workers Local 18, said it was important workers heard “what President Joe Biden has promised — and delivered.”
Jeryllyn Jeanes, a Service Employees International Union Local 1 member and janitor in downtown Milwaukee, said she was happy for Biden’s visit.
Jeanes noted in particular the prescription drug price cap for Medicare as well as Biden’s executive order canceling $10,000 in college debt for people with student loans.
After Biden’s speech, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels issued a statement criticizing Biden and Evers for “demanding that shopkeepers and other workers repay the debts of people who, in many cases, earn more than them.
Jeanes scoffed at the suggestion that debt cancellation will benefit the wealthy at the expense of workers who have not gone to college. Low-income families with children who have taken out college loans will also benefit, she said.
“He fights for all working class people,” Jeanes said of Biden. “He is the first president in a long time where we have had to defend the unions and the workers. He is not afraid of the word “union”.
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