Barack Obama will return to the traditional heartlands of the American trade union movement on this Labor Day, marching in and speaking at the close of the annual Labor Day Parade in Detroit and then flying later to a huge LaborFest celebration in Milwaukee.
The Detroit appearance brings the Democratic nominee back to the spot where the party's presidential candidates historically began their fall campaigns.
It was in Detroit in 1960 that a young John Kennedy, who had defeated labor-favorite Hubert Humphrey in that year's Democratic primaries, won over union members with a speech that embraced the union movement with a passion and a precision that helped him to win the confidence of working-class voters.
"I welcome the support of working men and women everywhere and I am proud of the endorsement of the AFL-CIO," JFK told a crowd of 100,000 in the city's Cadillac Square. "For the labor movement is people. The goals of the labor movement are the goals for all Americans and their enemies are the enemies of progress."
Kennedy followed in the footsteps of Democratic nominees Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson in choosing to open his campaign in Detroit with a warm embrace of the labor movement.
As the years passed, however, Democratic nominees sought to distance themselves from unions.
Nichols' account of Barack Obama's own words shows us a man determined to close that distance and honor the labor movement once again:
The 2008 Democratic nominee says in his Labor Day message that, "It's time you had a president who honors organized labor, who has walked on picket lines, who doesn't choke on the word ‘union,' who let's our unions do what they do best and organize our workers and who will finally make the Employee Free Choice Act (legislation that would remove barriers to organizing) the law of the land."
He also says, "America was built by its laborers, but today our workers are struggling just to get by in an economy thatno longer works for them. That's why we cannot afford four more years of the failed George Bush economic policies – policies that Senator McCain has proudly embraced and promises to continue."
The statements echo Obama's newly-populist message – debuted in his acceptance speech at last week's Democratic National Convention. "The struggles facing working families working families can't be solved by spending billions of dollars on more tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy CEOs," says Obama, who will be promising policies that eschew tax breaks for companies that move jobs out of the U.S. and promises to redirect them to companies that create jobs in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.
The Republicans, on the other hand, decided to begin their own Convention on Labor Day. This leads me to shift my attention from the politicians themselves towards all those workers responsible for the infrastructure without which the Convention could not take place. The obvious question to raise is: Is the Convention venue in St. Paul a union shop? If it is not a union shop, then, whether or not it was intentional, the Republican Party has sent a loud and clear message to organized labor; and that message is as far from Obama's as one could hope to get. If it is a union shop, the message is not much better and may even be a bit worse. In this latter case the message is, "We do not care if this is a holiday created in your honor. 'The business of America is business;' and we need you to work today, even if we have to pay more for your efforts." This may be the ultimate refutation of that precept of Pierre Bourdieu, which I have recently become fond of citing: There is something worse than passing noticed; it is being noticed and then summarily dismissed!
Now, to be fair, John McCain himself seems to know better than to let workers pass unnoticed:
For his part, John McCain will won't [sic] be speaking at Labor Day events. Instead, he'll be taking a bus tour through Toledo, a community devastated by manufacturing job cuts since the enactment of trade policies that favor the outsourcing of factory work.
Furthermore, the determination of the Republicans to make sure that Hurricane Gustav does not tar them, one more time, with the brush of Hurricane Katrina has reduced Convention activities to a bare minimum of procedural work and a blatantly overt absence of festivities. As Jonathan Beale put it in his dispatch last night from St. Paul to BBC News:
In short, the order has gone out - there will be no fiddling while Rome burns.
So, no razzmatazz on the opening day. On Monday there will be no political speeches, just procedural activities that will allow the convention to officially get under way.
In the words of Rick Davis, the chairman of the McCain campaign "we want to be respectful of the situation".
This may free up many of the infrastructure workers to celebrate Labor Day after all. As Nichols pointed out, they will be in the perfect place to celebrate:
The biggest event in the Twin Cities this Labor Day will not be the Republican convention, however.
It will be a "Take Back Labor Day" festival at Harriet Island in St. Paul, featuring Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Mos Def, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and other musicians as well as speeches by Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern and other top labor leaders who are ardent Obama backers.
With all due respect to those musicians who have given their time for this event, I just hope that someone remembers to lead a rousing chorus of "Solidarity Forever!"