Whether from clever advance work or genuine enthusiasm about getting back to work after a month's break, President Reagan convinced Chicago he was thoroughly enjoying his 19-hour political stop over in this Democratic stronghold.
Lines of protesters appeared more curious than angry. And after a 20-minute meeting with the President, Mayor Jane Byrne said she was confident that even cities as financially strapped as Chicago can live with the federal budget cuts. Mr. Reagan had promised to "be very good to big cities," the Democratic mayor said, and "so far he has."
The visit's main challenge came Thursday morning when Reagan explained his views on unemployment, inflation, and the air traffic controllers strike. Speaking to 3,000 delegates of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and joiners of America, an AFL-CIO affiliate, the President said that as a former union local president himself he sympathizes with the labor movement and respects its right to negotiate. He said his administration "will not fight inflation by attacking the sacred right of American workers to control their wages."
He repeatedly stressed that his economic policies are designed specifically to tackle the problem of unemployment. After quoting President John F. Kennedy on how tax cuts stimulate economic growth, he said that the Kennedy tax cut "actually produced more revenue for the government because the economy was stimulated and more people were working and there was more industry and productivity in America."
Commenting that the construction industry has suffered disproportionately, Reagan said a special presidential commission has identified one cause of the problem: bureaucratic red tape and government regulation driving up home costs by 20 percent. Referring to his dismissing the striking air traffic controllers , he said that as government employees, the controllers were "striking against the public" and "in violation of the law."
Earlier during the convention, carpenters union president William Konyha set the stage by saying it was an honor to have the President address the union's centenary session.
Once the formalities were out of the way, however, Mr. Konyha took off the white gloves and laid into Reagan policy. He criticized the administration for catering to "the big business and financial conglomerates that dominate American life."
Reagan's new tax program, Konyha said, "distributes nickels and dimes in the zones where the working folks live, while it showers big bucks up there on the hills where the rich people live and admire the scenery."
Konyha demanded new policies to reverse 16 percent unemployment in the construction industry and to reduce the high interest rates that have stalled construction. He attacked administration efforts "to repeal so many of the important safeguards in the lives of working people"; specifically, social security, the minimum wage, health and safety regulations, and the Davis-Bacon Act wage standards for federal construction projects.
But in the significant area of collective bargaining, Konyha took a softer line. He called for union flexibility and measures "to meet fair-minded employers halfway. . . ." He said union negotiators need "to work cooperatively to make certain that our union employers can compete on a fair basis with the nonunion sector."
Reagan's willingness to go halfway showed up clearly in Chicago. By taking center stage at the carpenters convention, he also guaranteed a national audience for the union's criticism of his economic program.
Wednesday evening reagan told a Republican fund-raising gathering that he intends to "get government out of the people's pockets" so that private capital will be available for investment and expansion.
Speaking to the carpenters, Reagan said his administration will "concentrate on putting America back to work." In return, he asked delegates to realize that "organized labor should not become the handmaiden of any one political party."
While Reagan bent over backward to show his sympathy with union concerns, he visibly stiffened his stance on US-Soviet relations.He said his determination to increase US military spending and strength is a message to the Soviets that either they must unilaterally cut back their military programs "or they will be in arms race which they can't win."