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Gawker's Union Leader Steps Onto White House Lawn

Posted on
Oct 10, 2015

Hamilton Nolan, who led the organizing effort with WGA-East at Gawker, wrote a first-person account of the Workers Voice Summit hosted by the White House on Wednesday. Here is an excerpt of his blog post; read the rest here.

Obama was introduced by Terrence Wise, a Kansas City fast food worker who’s emerged as a leader in the “Fight For $15” movement. Wise’s mother, also a fast food worker, was in the audience. She got a compliment from the president, who also pointed out that she and Terrence lived far apart and, due to poverty, had not been able to see each other for ten years before that day. I spoke to her later over boxed lunches. “I had three good things happen,” she said. “I rode on a plane for the first time. I got to see my son. And I got to meet the president.” She had the best story of anyone at the White House that day.

After Obama’s speech, we all scattered down a sidewalk to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for various panel discussions. I took one step on the nicely cut grass beside the sidewalk and was immediately reprimanded by a Secret Service agent: “Stay on the path, sir.” My panel, held in an auditorium with the precise size and layout of those found in small elementary schools, was “Millennials Finding Their Voice.” I am not, technically speaking, a millennial—another Obama administration scandal. Following our panel, the most popular man in the DC metro area, “Diamond” Joe Biden, came in to address everyone. Biden leaned on the podium like a maitre’d, and spoke in the leisurely manner of a reminiscing retiree with nowhere to be and a captive audience. He spoke about the declining middle class and the value of unions and the fundamental unfairness of CEO pay with the effortlessness of someone who has been speaking of these very same things for many decades to many pro-labor crowds. Everything was running very late by this point. Biden noted when he came out that he didn’t have much time. Then he started talking. Every few minutes he’d say, “I have to let you go or I’ll get in trouble.” Then he would plunge back into his languid stream of consciousness for another long stretch. Everyone in the room was supposed to be back across the street to hear the president again at 4 p.m. At 4:08 Biden said “Final thought, fellas.” He wrapped up around 4:15. His final line was that if he didn’t let us go, he’d get “demoted to Secretary of State—that’s a joke.”

At last, we all filed back for a “Town Hall” with the president, who sat on stage with a moderator and took questions about labor issues from people on the internet and from a few audience members, inspiring jealousy from all those sitting around them. While he was being introduced, Obama stood up, took off his suit jacket, and rolled up the cuffs of his sleeves with long, elegant fingers. At times he would cast his eyes down while cracking a joke, as if he was in a private conversation with himself. Barack Obama possesses the casual elegance and grace that luxury clothing makers try to capture in black-and-white advertisements. It is no wonder that many of us feel that he hasn’t lived up to our grand expectations. No political career’s cold realities are as seductive as expectations formed on the basis of someone’s personal magnetism. George Clooney would probably be a disappointment as president, too.

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