DETROIT â€” President Barack Obama hinted to a Labor Day crowd in Detroit some of what heâ€™ll be saying Thursday in a major jobs address to a joint session of Congress.
â€œWeâ€™ve got roads and bridges across this country that need rebuilding,â€ he told a crowd of mostly unionists who had just marched in their annual parade. â€œWeâ€™ve got more than 1 million unemployed construction workers ready to get dirty right now.â€
He also said heâ€™s ready to ask Congress to extend a payroll tax cut that is set to expire before the end of the year.
â€œI still believe both parties can work together to solve our problems,â€ Obama said. â€œWeâ€™re going to see if congressional Republicans will put country before party.â€
Obamaâ€™s words were what the union members said they wanted to hear.
â€œWeâ€™ve got construction workers out of work, and weâ€™ve got things that need to be done,â€ said Carol Ussery-Huckleby, 54, of Southfield, Mich. â€œWeâ€™ve got to put them together.â€
For Al Calhoun of Pontiac, Mich., president of United Steelworkers Local 690L, there was just one concern: â€œJobs, jobs and more jobs.â€
Barry McBride of Green Oak Township, Mich., said he remains concerned that Obama works too hard to compromise with Republicans (who control the U.S. House) instead of â€œhelping out the people that put him in office.â€
But McBride said he plans to vote for Obama again in 2012. â€œI support him, but he needs to support us,â€ he said.
State Republicans responded to Obamaâ€™s speech with a strong counter punch. In a conference call with reporters, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Robert Schostak said, â€œRank-and-file moms and dads are hurting big- time, simply because Obamaâ€™s policies arenâ€™t working. The last stimulus plan was a colossal failure.â€
But Obama celebrated a portion of that stimulus plan â€” the $81 billion federal rescue of General Motors and Chrysler in 2009, and the fact that the auto industry gave rise to the middle class in Michigan and across the nation.
â€œOur economy is stronger when workers are getting paid good wages and good benefits,â€ he said. â€œHaving a voice on the job and a chance to get organized and a chance to negotiate for a fair dayâ€™s pay â€¦ is the right of every man and woman in America: not just the CEO in the corner office, but also the janitor who cleans that office.â€
The crowd, estimated at about 12,000, filled the GM parking lot next to the Renaissance Center and repeatedly chanted â€œObama,â€ â€œMore good jobs,â€ and â€œFour more years â€œ during the speech, especially when Obama said he was prepared to stick up for organized labor.
â€œAfter all that unions have done to build and protect the middle class, youâ€™ve got people trying to claim that youâ€™re responsible for the problems middle class folks are facing,â€ he said. â€œImagine that.â€
Carmen Mitchell, 56, a retiree from Inkster, Mich., said workers get no respect from the bosses.
â€œChanges in the law are being pushed very fast,and theyâ€™re not in the best interest of us workers,â€ she said.
But state Rep. Mike Shirkey, a Republican, said right-to-work legislation is the last piece of the puzzle for an economic rebound in Michigan:
â€œWeâ€™ve done the tax structure, and weâ€™re whacking away at regulation, and this is one of the last remaining obstacles when businesses compare Michigan with labor free states.â€
State Rep. Marty Knollenberg, also a Republican and one of the sponsors of state right-to-work legislation, added, â€œThis is not a slam against unions. Itâ€™s about freedom to choose. Why should employment be subject to joining a union?â€
But Obama, to cheers from the crowd, characterized right-to-work legislation as â€œright-to-work for less and less and less.â€