Obama punches in at union rally in Detroit

Enthusiastic response to call for jobs

President Obama on Labor Day Monday rallied his waning base of union supporters, telling a crowd in Detroit that the working men and women of America are the key to turning the economy around.

“That’s the bedrock this country is built on,” Mr. Obama said. “Hard work. Responsibility. Sacrifice. Looking out for one another. Giving everybody a shot, everybody a chance to share in America’s prosperity, from the factory floor to the boardroom. That’s what unions are all about.”

The crowd, fueled by an annual union parade that ended near the site of the speech, began chanting, “Four more years, four more years, four more years,” and held up four fingers in support of the president.

It was a drastic change from the disappointed reception his traditional union supporters had been giving him.

In recent weeks, the president has been losing traction with unions that think he is not fighting as hard for them as a Democrat should.

Mr. Obama is pushing through three free trade agreements that are ruffling some union feathers. The president also has drawn union criticism for not being more outspoken in his support for the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB has accused Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace manufacturer, of retaliating against workers in Washington state for past strikes by building a new plant in South Carolina, a right-to-work state where unions are not mandatory. The NLRB is also trying to rewrite union election rules.

So, on Monday, Mr. Obama traveled to the Motor City, which has strong union ties to the auto industry, to reassure workers of his commitment to the labor movement.

“And I want everybody here to know, as long as I’m in the White House, I’m going to stand up for collective bargaining,” Mr. Obama said. “Everything we’ve done, it’s been thinking about you.”

Now, he’s trying to bring the economy back from a recession.

The president said he has a plan for jobs that would “put Americans back to work right now.” He pointed to roads and bridges that need to be built across the country, and noted there are more than 1 million unemployed construction workers ready to “get dirty.”

Paying workers more and giving them better benefits, Mr. Obama reasoned, feeds more money into the economy, which creates more jobs.

“We’re fighting for good jobs with good wages,” the president said. “When working families are doing well, when they’re getting decent wages and they’re getting decent benefits, that means they’re good customers for businesses. That means they can buy the cars that you build.”

The president said the “central challenge” is making sure unions are thriving. “The union movement is going to be at the center of it,” he said.

In contrast, Mr. Obama criticized right-to-work states like South Carolina. “That really means the right to work for less and less and less,” he said.

Michigan, which Mr. Obama won in 2008, will be a key battleground state in next year’s presidential election.

But the president has been losing support from voters there. Democrats are upset that he isn’t doing more to help unions, while independents aren’t happy about the economy.

Across the country, public approval of the president’s handling of the economy sank to 26 percent in a recent Gallup poll.

The tensions are nowhere higher than in Michigan, which has one of the worst unemployment rates in the country -at 10.9 percent in July. Detroit is even worse at 14.1 percent.

Mr. Obama traveled there, hoping to change voter opinions.

“This is a city that’s been to heck and back,” he said. “You ask somebody here if times are tough, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, it’s tough, but we’re tougher.’ “

He reminded the crowd that he was behind a bailout that has seen the Big Three auto companies - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - get back to making a profit and hiring new workers.

“We said that American autoworkers could once again build the best cars in the world,” he said. “So we stood by the auto industry.”

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