President Joe Biden speaks to a gathering of union workers at Laborfest in Milwaukee Monday. (Scott Olson | Getty Images)
Under bright sunshine at Milwaukee’s first official Labor Day celebration since 2019, President Joe Biden rallied 6,000 union members in a speech that lived up to the holiday’s unofficial role: kicking off the final stretch of the fall election campaign season.
Biden’s speech, delivered at Laborfest on the Milwaukee Summerfest grounds, was an opportunity for the president to tout legislative victories and to recap his speech last week in Philadelphia, when he warned that out of loyalty to former President Donald Trump, the dominant voices in the Republican Party are embracing violence and rejecting democracy.
The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol aimed at blocking the results of the November 2020 election in which Biden defeated Trump was “an attack on American democracy and all we stand for,” Biden said.
He also leaned into a full-throated endorsement of unions in the American workplace.
Two of the speakers preceding him — national AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler and U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh — lauded 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 Laborers Union, concurred. “There has never been a more pro-worker, pro-labor president in the history of the United States,” he said. “President Joe Biden, that is our champion for working people all across his country.”
When it was his turn, Biden heartily claimed the banner, crediting union support with helping him first win his U.S. Senate seat at the age of 29. “The middle class built America — everybody knows that. But unions built the middle class,” Biden said, to a roar of applause.
Later, Biden recalled when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in the 1930s, establishing federal rights for workers to form unions. “He didn’t say it was OK to vote [for unions],” Biden said. “The language read: We should encourage unions.” As applause rippled, he raised his voice: “Well, I’m encouraging unions!” he said, to more cheers.
By the time Biden spoke, others at the podium had already referred to the signature pieces of legislation that have marked Biden’s first two years in office.
U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) singled out the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that, among many other items, includes provisions to replace lead pipe in water systems around the country.
Walsh boasted that the bipartisan CHIPS Act to boost the domestic microprocessor industry would lead to “thousands of new jobs, thousands of good union jobs all across the United States of America.”
Biden highlighted both laws. He also touted the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act, including provisions allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices of expensive prescription drugs, capping out-of-pocket prescription drug costs for Medicare patients, and requiring most corporations to pay a minimum 15% income tax.
He noted that Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) had voted against the measures, singling out the prescription-drug savings in particular because it would be “punishing” the prescription drug industry. “C’mon, man!” Biden said, to hearty laughter from the crowd.
Early on, Biden restated his evocation of the United States as a country of “unity and optimism — not a nation of division and violence and hatred as has been preached by some others.”
As he did last week in Philadelphia, Biden sought to separate the “MAGA Republicans” who have defended Trump’s continued lies about the 2020 election results from other members of the GOP.
“I want to be very clear up front — not every Republican is a MAGA Republican. Not every Republican embraces that extreme ideology. I know because I’ve been able to work with mainstream Republicans my whole career.” But, he said, the “extreme MAGA Republicans in Congress have chosen to go backwards, full of anger and violence, hate and division. But together we can and we must choose a different path.”
He returned to the subject later, telling the crowd that “we remain in the battle for the soul of America” when a heckler interrupted him. “God love you,” Biden said, and as others in the audience booed the heckler, the president said, “Let him go — no, no, no … Let him go, look, everybody’s entitled to be an idiot.”
Turning serious again, he wound up his talk recalling the Capitol attack and the deaths that occurred — criticizing Johnson along the way for having described the day as one of “peaceful protest.” “There’s no democracy where you can be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy,” Biden said.
The enthusiastic applause suggested the president had made a hit with the crowd. Gov. Tony Evers, running for re-election this fall, was also warmly applauded.
Lt. Gov. 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 praised him from the podium, to cheers from the crowd.
When the speeches were over, Ross Winklbauer, a retired United Steel Workers union officials, pronounced the event “fabulous” and said he was optimistic that Biden, and the Democratic Party, would weather the November elections without losing either house of Congress, defying what have been the predictions of most political pundits until recently.
Pam Fendt, president of the Milwaukee County Labor Council, which organizes the annual Laborfest event, said the group estimated about 6,000 people had attended. Through Election Day, she said, unions will be employing organizing tactics to encourage voters to turn out to vote for Democrats.
“It’s talking one on one,” she said. “Finding common ground in what people need in their quality of life.”
Stu Wilson, a business agent for Sheet Metal Workers Local 18, said it was important for workers to hear “what President Joe Biden has promised — and delivered.”
Jeryllyn Jeanes, a member of Service Employees International Union Local 1 and a janitorial worker in downtown Milwaukee, said she was happy about Biden’s visit.
Jeanes noted in particular the cap on prescription drug prices 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 candidate for governor Tim Michels put out a statement criticizing Biden and Evers for “demanding that tradespeople and other workers pay off the debts of people who in many cases earn more than they do.”
Jeanes scoffed at the suggestion that debt forgiveness will benefit the wealthy at the expense of working people who didn’t go to college. Low-income families with children who have taken on college loans will benefit as well, she said.
“He’s fighting for all working class people,” Jeanes said of Biden. “He’s the first president in a long time we’ve had to stand up for union and working people. He’s not scared of the word ‘union.’”
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