Labor Secretary Robert Reich implored the Service Employees International Union to "organize, energize, mobilize" against "smears and attacks on trade unionism" in a speech to the union's 75th anniversary convention in Chicago last week.
A few minutes later President Clinton told delegates by video: "You and your families are the heart and soul of the American dream."
Seeking to cement their alliance with the union six months ahead of the general election, Reich and Clinton underlined the goals they hold in common with the labor movement and their achievements: passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, fighting against Republican changes in Medicare and Medicaid, expanding the earned income tax credit, and prohibiting the replacement of strikers on federally contracted work.
The president said he had managed to "stall or defeat almost every major attack on American workers and their families. And we may be winning some important victories." The Kassebaum-Kennedy health insurance bill, which had passed the Senate unanimously the day before, Clinton promised to sign "the minute it hits my desk."
He also stressed the gathering momentum to raise the minimum wage and pushed his Retirement Savings and Security Act, which is designed to increase the portability of pensions.
Reich, in a vigorous pep talk to the union, touched on the themes of economic injustice and insecurity that unsettled the body politic in the primaries. "SEIU, I have a message for you: Working people need you now more than ever....The gap in wages is threatening to tear this country apart, to create a two-tier society that none of us want to live in."
The SEIU, with 1.1 million members, has 475,000 healthcare workers, more than any other union. At its convention the union launched a broadside against three major healthcare employers. It is buying advertisements in the hometown papers of Vencor-Hillhaven, Beverly Enterprises and Kaiser Permanente. The ads contain an 800 number for readers who want to "blow the whistle."
"What happens when one corporate giant takes over another and hundreds of people lose their jobs?" asks the Vencor ad, scheduled to run in the Louisville Courier Journal. "The CEO gets a raise."
High executive compensation and corporate profits in healthcare were repeated targets at the convention. Delegates pledged to unionize more of the healthcare industry and voted a dues increase for organizing purposes.
Delegates also heard from licensed vocational nurses from Pennsylvania, who were among 370 permanently replaced by Beverly earlier in April after they went on strike to protest labor law violations.
Kaiser took repeated hits.
"Because it is a prepaid health plan, Kaiser has a financial incentive to deny care," said Rachel Rodriguez, a Kaiser medical assistant in Fresno, Calif., at a press conference attacking the healthcare industry's profits. Andy Stern, the SEIU's newly elected president, was asked why the SEIU was picking on Kaiser, a traditional friend of labor, instead of the non-unionized managed-care companies in California.
"Kaiser has a reputation but not a reality of being friendly to its unions," Stern answered. "We intend to organize those other HMOs in California."
The union declined to give details on its organizing strategy, but David Chu, an SEIU researcher, said: "While people are short-term beneficiaries of premium cuts, in the long term it undermines quality. The employers are not sensitive to this." The SEIU will try to reach out to large private employers and cooperatives, including the Pacific Business Group on Health and union healthcare trust funds, to persuade them of the importance of quality issues, especially in managed care.
As for organizing more loosely structured health plans than Kaiser, "It's a lot more complicated a situation," Chu said.