DETROIT — On an unusually chilly September afternoon yesterday, President Barack Obama delivered a Labor Day address at the Renaissance Center here, emphasizing the importance of bipartisanship in determining policy to augment national employment and strengthen the economy.
Obama’s address precedes his scheduled speech to Congress on Thursday regarding upcoming initiatives for job improvement. His visit to Detroit also follows a Sept. 2 report from the U.S. Labor Department declaring a national net job change of zero for the first time since 1945.
The event began with a performance by Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” who energized the shivering audience with soulful renditions of her classic hits. Franklin was followed by speeches from Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and United Auto Workers member Ghaman Goodwin-Die.
Obama began his address by thanking those in attendance for striving to improve the prosperity of the city of Detroit and the nation amid a difficult economic period. The opening was immediately followed by exuberant chants from the crowd cheering “Four more years!” and waving posters that read “Let America Work: Good Jobs Now!”
“I am honored, we are honored, to spend the day with you and your families, the working men and women of America,” Obama told the crowd. “You deserve a little R&R, a little barbeque, (a) little grilling, because you’ve been working hard.”
He continued by highlighting the initiatives of his administration to improve the quality of life for “the greatest middle class the world has ever known,” including tax breaks for the working class, affordable health care and education reform.
“Everything we’ve done, it’s been thinking about you,” Obama said. “We said working folks deserved a break — so within one month of me taking office, we signed into law the biggest middle-class tax cut in history, putting more money into your pockets.”
Obama acknowledged the strain unemployment has inflicted upon countless citizens and reaffirmed his quest to help the nation rise above the recession as thousands of American citizens continue to seek employment.
“These are tough times for working Americans,” Obama said. “They’re even tougher for Americans who are looking for work — and a lot of them have been looking for work for a long time. A lot of folks have been looking for work for a long time here in Detroit, and all across Michigan, and all across the Midwest, and all across the country. So we’ve got a lot more work to do to recover fully from this recession.”
While Obama didn’t delve into the contents of his Congressional speech on Thursday, he did note plans to launch major infrastructure projects that would improve the quality of the nation’s roads and employ up to a million workers. He noted that the projects require compromises from both parties and bipartisanship efforts.
“We’ve got roads and bridges across this country that need rebuilding,” Obama said. “We’ve got private companies with the equipment and the manpower to do the building. We’ve got more than 1 million unemployed construction workers ready to get dirty right now. There is work to be done and there are workers ready to do it. Labor is on board. Business is on board. We just need Congress to get on board. Let’s put America back to work.”
While Detroit has endured debilitating conditions over the past decade and has “gone to heck and back,” Obama said, the city is showing signs of progression, particularly through improvements made by the “Big Three” automotive companies — General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Group.
“We stood by the auto industry, and we made some tough choices that were necessary to make it succeed,” Obama said. “And now, the Big Three are turning a profit and hiring new workers and building the best cars in the world right here in Detroit, right here in the Midwest, right here in the United States of America.”
Obama concluded by discussing the city’s quest to reinvigorate and develop a new identity despite its hardships. He pointed to initiatives made by the “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” program in which the Obama administration works with local legislators and workers to improve economic conditions.
Detroit resident Lisa Murdock said while she thought Obama delivered the speech well, she wished he had talked more about his plans for job creation in the state.
“I thought he was very articulate; he was very much an outstanding speaker,” Murdock said. “However, I didn’t hear a lot about the status of jobs in this country. He touched a little bit on it, but I wanted to know more about what was going to be done as far as getting more Americans employed.”
Others in the crowd were impressed by Obama’s words but are awaiting the president’s subsequent actions. David Burcar and Courtney Nicholson, both members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58 — a union in Detroit — said Obama’s words resonated and that if Obama acts on his proposed initiatives, they will demonstrate further support for his re-election.
“This is Detroit, and he gave a speech that Detroit wanted to hear,” Burcar said. “Now let’s hope he takes that same sentiment back to Washington, and actually works for us and get’s behind us so that we stay behind him.”
Nicholson said he was glad to hear Obama discuss the importance of ensuring equality among people in high-paying business positions and employees in more blue collar workforces. He added that it should be an initiative of schools like the University’s Ross School of Business to educate students on the importance of tolerance and respect for those in working class positions.
“Business schools, including (the University), where my sister went and got her MBA, need to address morals and the social conscious of their students when they turn them out,” Nicholson said. “You can’t just have $32 million because you say you’re 700 times better than the man working on the floor.”
Public Policy junior Andrea Schafer was among the masses at yesterday’s speech and said she was inspired by Obama mentioning the role of young people to help revive Detroit. It reminded her of programs like the University’s Semester in Detroit in which students work toward the “beautification and revamping of the city,” she said.
“I’m happy as a young person that we were recognized because a lot of the speakers talked about how powerful the youth’s vote and youth’s momentum can be,” Schafer said. “It was nice to be recognized, and I think D.C. needs to realize that we’re a force to be reckoned with, so people should be fighting for what we want too.”
She added that she found the speech to be more a form of “reassurance” rather than a call to action.
“It was very empowering,” Schafer said. “He addressed a lot of concerns of the middle class and workers in the public sector, and I think he assured them that there are good people in D.C. who are still fighting for them, who are fighting for us and who are fighting for the middle class.”