by Jules Witcover

The country has just experienced about as somber a Labor Day as most of us can remember. It came with the grim news that for the first time in many years, a month had passed with absolutely no job growth and with the unemployment rate mired at 9.1 percent.

In better times, Labor Day was a sort of Democratic Party holiday, with presidential hopefuls marching with union leaders and rank-and-file working stiffs in labor capitals like Detroit, where the auto industry hummed with prosperity.

Appropriately named Cadillac Square in the Motor City would be jammed with union members celebrating the marriage of the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers and other affiliates with the party of FDR and Harry Truman.

On Labor Day, President Obama dutifully went to Detroit, not to Cadillac Square but to a parking lot outside a General Motors plant, for a pep rally where some of the faithful greeted him with shouts of the "Four more years!" That was the rallying cry that delivered reelection to Richard Nixon in 1972, but was short-circuited by his resignation for his cover-up of the Watergate scandal.

The greeting outside the GM plant rang out more as a plaintive hope than a triumphant assurance. A Washington Post/ABC News Poll out the next day reported Obama's approval rating on the jobs front had fallen to the lowest of his presidency, at only 43 percent, to 53 percent disapproval.

All the chief "labor skates" of the union movement were present, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, UAW President Bob King and Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa Jr., as well as the kingpins of the Michigan congressional delegation. It was just like old times, except it's not like old times, when nearly a third of the American work force was organized. Now it's less than one-tenth.

Obama went to Detroit because in a real sense it personifies the American middle class that the unions were so critical in building in the 1930s and beyond. And that middle class must be fully restored, Obama said, if America is to have an economic recovery.

He cited the domestic auto industry, noting, "the Big Three are turning a profit and hiring new workers." He touted the new advanced battery industry "taking root here in Michigan that barely existed before."

Obama offered a preview of his upcoming speech to Congress on job creation, including a heightened focus on infrastructure repair and rebuilding by "more than 1 million unemployed construction workers ready to get dirty right now." In a clear challenge to Capitol Hill, he said: "Labor is on board. Business is on board. We just need Congress to get on board. Let's put American back to work."

It's arguable, though, that business is on board, with employers holding off on hiring as their profits mount through increased labor productivity from fewer workers. But Obama preferred to make the Republicans in Congress the prime villain in the stalled recovery.

The president told the Detroit crowd: "We're going to see if we've got some straight shooters in Congress. We're going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party. We'll give them a plan, and then we'll say, do you want to create jobs?" Obama went on: "No more manufactured crises. No more games. Now is not the time for the people you sent to Washington to worry about their jobs; now is the time for them to worry about your jobs."

Near the close, he recalled the Detroit Labor Day visit 63 years earlier of Harry Truman, who "talked about how Americans had voted in some folks into Congress who weren't very friendly to labor," and reminded them that "the gains of labor were not accomplished at the expense of the rest of the nation. Labor's gains contributed to the nation's general prosperity."

That Truman speech launched his campaign against "the Do-Nothing Congress" that brought him an upset reelection in 1948. The question this time around is whether Obama will make the same charge, or in the end continue to turn the other cheek.


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A President in Labor | Politics

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