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Obama visits Boston, pushes paid leave at Labor Day breakfast

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U.S. President Barack Obama urged support for paid leave for workers Monday at the Greater Boston Labor Council’s Labor Day breakfast.

“We’ve got millions of people who can’t care for a loved one with a serious illness without losing a paycheck or risking their job,” Obama said in his speech. “I’m calling on Congress to take a cue from the rest of the world, work together in a bipartisan fashion, find a way to make paid leave, paid family and medical leave a reality for all Americans.”

An executive order, signed by Obama on Monday, would require federal contractors to give workers up to seven paid sick days annually.

Nearly 700 labor union members and organization supporters gathered at the breakfast held at the Park Plaza Hotel.

Supporting workers, Obama said, ultimately helps the entire country.

“When you make sure everybody gets a fair shot and a fair shake, and you’re fighting for decent wages for workers and making sure they’ve got decent benefits, when you reward people who are playing by the rules, that’s how everybody does better,” Obama said. “That’s how America gets ahead.”

Obama also addressed concerns of the middle class, work going on in Washington and the upcoming 2016 presidential election.

Leaders including Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, Massachusetts Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Steve Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, a national trade union, offered remarks at the breakfast, highlighting the role unions play and the issues they support.

Walsh talked about how labor unions have made the country stronger, but added that more can be done to bring in more people of color and women.

“Labor can’t afford to be divided or distracted,” Walsh said.

Warren spoke about how union members laid the ground to advocate for workers.

“Unions were on the front lines in the fights for the minimum wage, for social security, for Medicare and for the Voting Rights Act,” Warren said. “Corporations and billionaires already had a powerful voice in this country. Unions made sure working people had a strong voice, too.”

Tolman said labor unions have helped push issues important to all workers.

“The labor movement gives us collective power to improve quality of life for all and to create a society of people over profit,” Tolman said to the crowd. “To my union brothers and sisters, when we work together and fight together, we win together.”

Before the breakfast began, nearly 100 Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority workers protested by the Park Plaza Hotel to express opposition to privatizing the MBTA.

Several attendees expressed support for the ideas shared during the breakfast and what leaders are doing to address them.

Don Schaefer, 68, a member of the Service Employees International Union Local 3 for firemen and oilers, said it’s a relief to see attention paid to improving work conditions.

“I’m just so sorry we have to be hearing things now about work that needs to be done,” he said. “I was part of the ’60s generation that went out in the streets to bring justice to the country. It’s really uplifting about correcting wrongly neglected social ills.”

Monalisa Smith, president and CEO of Mothers for Justice and Equality, said she appreciates that leaders are taking part in the national conversation about workers.

“It’s very exciting, very encouraging to know there’s an emphasis to help individuals working to get housing and other services they need to protect and build a middle class in America,” she said. “I hope to see a real reinvented emphasis on ending poverty, which leads to ending street violence.”

Veronica Turner, executive vice president for the SEIU 1199 for healthcare workers, said Obama is an example of a leader that supports working people.

“It’s an expectation of mine that our elected officials support working people … the economy is so bad right now and so many working people are struggling,” she said. “I’m a huge fan and I don’t agree with all that he [Obama] says, but I believe he is right where working people need to be.”

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