In a Labor Day visit to receptive territory in Boston, President Obama lauded Massachusetts for leading the way on worker-friendly measures, including the state’s new law requiring companies to offer employees earned sick time.
“You all should be proud of what you’re doing for working families in this state,” the president told union leaders at their crowded annual Labor Day breakfast, also pointing to the city of Boston’s decision to offer employees paid parental leave. “But that’s not a new story here in Massachusetts. You all have always been a little ahead of the curve.”
Dressed casually in a button-down shirt and khakis, a relaxed Obama expressed relief that he is not on the ballot this election season, yet spoke forcefully about his record, contrasting his administration’s job gains and its efforts to help the middle class with opponents’ claims that requiring health care and raising the minimum wage will kill jobs.
“In their world, the only way to help . . . people get ahead is to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, and loosen up rules on big banks and polluters,” Obama said. “Then you look up at the sky and prosperity will come raining down on us from the top of whatever high-rise is in your city.”
As expected, Obama used this Boston trip to announce that he had signed an executive order requiring federal contractors to offer employees up to seven paid sick days a year, depending on how many hours they work. The order will affect about 300,000 people, he told the crowd of about 765 union members gathered in Park Plaza for the Greater Boston Labor Council’s annual event.
“Unfortunately, only Congress has the power to give this security to all Americans,” he said. “But where I can act, I will.”
Pointing to the difficulties in Congress, the president compared another government shutdown to “an unforced error, a fumble on the goal line,” and drew laughter when he referred to the infamous Bill Buckner flub of the Red Sox’s 1986 World Series.
“It would be like a ground ball slipping through somebody’s legs,” Obama said, before qualifying his remark: “You guys have won a couple since that time, so I can make that joke.”
He also made two references to Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, whom a judge freed last week from a four-game suspension imposed by the National Football League for his alleged conspiracy to underinflate footballs during the championship game.
“Even Brady is happy he’s got a union,” Obama said. “They had his back. So you know if Brady needs a union, we definitely need unions.”
Obama spoke fondly of Boston, recalling his years here as a Harvard Law School student, his breakthrough Democratic National Convention speech in 2004, and his visit two years ago for an interfaith memorial service following the Boston Marathon bombings.
Sharing the stage with labor leaders and politicians, including US Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and Attorney General Maura Healey, Obama extolled the state’s leadership for safeguarding workers’ rights. Earlier in the day, Obama had been greeted warmly at Logan International Airport by both Walsh, a longtime labor leader; and Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican.
But all was not entirely harmonious on the labor front, even in Boston. In recent months, Obama has drawn ire from some leading Democrats and labor chiefs — including Warren and the AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka — for pushing a Trans-Pacific Partnership that they argued would hurt the country’s workers. Meanwhile, the Baker administration’s plan to privatize some bus routes drew a protest from the Boston Carmen’s Union, whose members amassed around Park Plaza in bright orange shirts with signs declaring messages like “Keep Public Transportation Public.”
But the protesters were never visible to the president’s motorcade, which dashed through the city mostly via tunnels, streets, and ramps that were closed to traffic. And inside the Park Plaza, the president sought to rally his allies against Republicans whom he blamed for a “constant attack on working Americans.”
The GOP wants to become “the party of higher wages,” yet opposes raising the minimum wage, said Obama, who also took a few swipes at “some of the folks who want to be their standard-bearer in the next election.”
The president also chided Republican candidates for president. One, he said, has been “bragging about how he destroyed collective bargaining rights in his state,” and saying that “busting unions prepares him to fight” the Islamic State, while another has “said a union deserves a punch in the face.” Though he didn’t name names, Obama seemed to be respectively referring to Governor Scott Walker’s crackdown on public unions in Wisconsin and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s combative words about national teachers’ unions.
“It reminds me of something our old friend Ted Kennedy used to say: ‘What is it about working men and women that [they] find so offensive?’ ” Obama said.
Before he left Boston, the president made an unscheduled stop at the Union Oyster House, the historic restaurant near Faneuil Hall, picking up chowder and shaking hands with patrons. On Air Force One, he was joined by Warren and Markey, as well as US Representatives Katherine Clark, Seth Moulton, and Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire.Peter Schworm of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.