President Obama came to Milwaukee’s 2014 Laborfest this past Monday. He said he had come to celebrate Labor Day, to celebrate workers’ pursuit of America’s promise – or as he put it: “We’re here to celebrate something that sometimes the American people take for granted — the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, a minimum wage, weekends like this one. All that didn’t happen by accident. It happened because America’s workers organized for it, fought for it. History shows that working families can get a fair shot in this country, but only if we’re willing to fight for it.”
But, of course, the real point of his trip to the biggest city in the Dairy State was to urge Wisconsinites to avoid “cynicism” and turn out in November to vote. As he exclaimed in closing his speech:
“Cynicism is fashionable these days, but cynicism didn’t put anybody on the moon. Cynicism never won a war, it never cured a disease, it never started a business, it never fed a young mind, it never built a road or a bridge. Cynicism is a bad choice. Hope is the better choice. Hope is what gives us courage. Hope is what gave soldiers courage to storm a beach. Hope is what gives young people the strength to march for women’s rights, and worker’s rights, and civil rights, and voting rights, and gay rights, and immigration rights.”
But hell, if anybody is acting cynically, it is surely the president.
Listen to this. After the words, “History shows that working families can get a fair shot in this country, but only if we’re willing to fight for it,” Obama said: “Now, the first time I came to Laborfest was — I was still a candidate back in 2008. And during that campaign, I promised if you sent me to the White House, I’d stand with you in that fight.”
A very nice memory. But not only did Obama not push for the desperately needed Employee Free Choice Act, he also did not stand – or march – in solidarity with us when our democratic rights were being trampled on. When the newly elected Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature steamrolled the destruction of public-employee collective-bargaining rights in 2011 and hundreds of thousands of workers and their families marched and protested in what was dubbed the Wisconsin Rising, Obama was nowhere to be seen. I don’t even remember him speaking up for us – though I do recall his willingness at the time to put everything on the table, including Social Security and Medicare, to satisfy the demands for “austerity” promoted by the GOP and the very same forces of the 1 percent who promoted Scott Walker’s 2010 campaign.
Somehow, Obama forgot to mention all of that. Instead, he spoke of the economic crisis that he had to confront – “A recession almost became a depression”– and strangely enough, since it sounded as if it could have been a promotional ad for Scott Walker’s re-election, he proceeded to proclaim “America is stronger because of the decisions we made to rescue our economy and rebuild it on a new foundation…”
Oh yes, the President said a lot of nice things at Laborfest about what he wanted to accomplish for working Americans – most emphatically, raise the minimum wage for all workers. But come on. While we all know that if you want to fight poverty you fight for a minimum wage, we also know that if you want to fight inequality you fight for a living wage. But wait. Obama doesn’t talk about inequality.
And yes, the President said – echoing President Franklin Roosevelt of the 1930s – that if he were a worker he would “join a union.” But he still said nothing about the destruction of Wisconsin workers’ rights and the imperative of restoring those rights. (And for the record, FDR’s “First 100 Days” saw the efforts to advance industrial democracy, empower workers, and guarantee their right to organize!)
I don’t see the cynicism Obama sees. I don’t see my fellow Wisconsinites giving up. And yet, I also don’t see the president fighting for our rights. So, yes, vote in November. But don’t wait on the White House: Be prepared to mobilize, organize, and fight for your rights. As Obama acknowledged, democracy and prosperity don’t just happen. We have to make them. And the only way to secure American democratic life is to enhance it. As my friend and colleague Robert Borosage put it in the title to CAF’s new report: Inequality: Rebuilding the Middle Class Requires Reviving Strong Unions.
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the new book “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye.