Vice President Al Gore
Service Employees International Union
1999 Conference on Legislative and Political Action
Washington, DC
May 23, 1999
…and other distinguished leaders of this organization and ladies and gentlemen. The long, warm, generous introduction that Andy gave to me just now, not as long as it could have been [laughter], but it reminded a little bit, all that talk about what I've done as Vice President, reminded me a little bit of a letter I received a few months ago from an 8-year old boy in Minnesota who wrote a long hand-written letter, this is a true story, that said you are the finest vice president of my time. [laughter]. Went straight to my head. I'll tell you listening to Andy Stern reminds me of what a great speaker he is, and y'all got him whipped up into a frenzy, that always happens when Andy gets going. I often think that if he read from a shampoo bottle, within a few minutes everybody would be chanting "Lather, rinse, repeat." Of course it's my understanding that before he became such a dynamic and effective president, he faithfully served the previous president for two terms. [laughter]. [To Andrew Stern]. Did that work well for you? [applause].

You know really the people I want to congratulate here are all of you, because I know about your organizing efforts. It is true, as your president has just said, that I've had the privilege and honor of being able to hit a lick every once in a while at a key strategic moment, in the right way, in the appropriate way when it could make a difference for you.

And I also think it's a testament to Andy Stern's leadership that in 1998 SEIU added more than 185,000 new members, twice the previous one-year record. Those 74,000 home care workers that you organized in Los Angeles represented the largest single organizing victory in more than sixty years… [applause]. That came on top of the 2,500 hospital workers you added at Sunrise Hospital in Nevada and more than 2,000 nurses in Iowa City. And if it wasn't clear before, it's now clear today, American labor is coming back. [applause].

And I know there are some people who are a little bit discombobulated by this resurgence of American labor, and some of them think that it's just something that happened over night. It reminds me of a story I heard recently in our nation's capital about an English tourist who came he and got a tour guide, and went to see the Capitol building. And the tour guide explained the House and Senate and how the Congress works and said, "This Capitol building"--and I see the model of it back in the back of the room there--he said, "This Capitol building took us twelve years to build." And the English tourist was a little snooty and he said, "In my country we could have built that in half the time." [laughter]. So the tour guide took him over to the Lincoln Memorial, and he described the Civil War, the healing after the war, and President Lincoln's leadership and said, "This memorial took us eight years to build." The tourist said, "Well in my country we could have built that in half the time." So the tour guide took him over to the Jefferson Memorial and described the Declaration of Independence and our founding and President Jefferson's role, and "This took us six years to build," he said. And the tourist once again said, "We could have built it in half the time." So the tour guide was getting pretty irritated by now, and drove him over to the Washington Monument. And he parked there beside the grounds and didn't say a word. Finally the tourist said, "What's that?" Tour guide said, "I don't know; it wasn't there yesterday." [laughter, applause].

One day you didn't have those new workers and the next day you had the largest victory in six years, but it didn't happen over night. And a lot more work needs to be done to continue organizing more working men and women in this country. The grassroots organization is really the key. And not only do I support your effort to make everyone an organizer; I'll do everything in my power to make sure that in our nation the right to organize is never stopped, never blocked, never taken away. [applause].

Growing up labor

I want to say this loud and clear and I want everybody to know it and be clear about it. I want the news media to hear this. I am pro-union, I am pro-worker, I am pro-organizing [applause]…in my bones. I was that way before I was born because my family came out of a political awareness that had organized labor as the bedrock. My father was the first secretary of labor that our state of Tennessee ever had. He put in the first workman's comp system back when it was progressive, and he put in the unemployment compensation and administered a lot of laws that had never heard of up until that time. And my sister and I were just raised that way. And as a matter of fact my dad was in Congress when I was born, and I don't know if any of you know Evie Dubrow [Dubrow, a former vice president of UNITE, previously ILGWU--the textile employees union--was a friend of Gore's father]; she was one of my babysitters [laughter] when I was growing up, if you can imagine. I can still remember those lullabies: "Look for the union label." [applause].

I was brought up, in other words, to believe in some basic, fundamental values. If you work hard, you deserve a good paycheck. If you get sick, you deserve good health care. If you put in a lifetime of loyal service, you deserve a secure pension. [applause]. If you want the job done right, you look for the union label. [cheers, applause].

These past seven years

We have worked hard together these past seven years to turn those fundamental values into reality and to create opportunity for everyone as we ask all to accept responsibility. And so as a result we do have a strong, job-creating economy today. Wages are rising again. We don't have the runaway budget deficit; we turned the largest budget deficit into the largest budget surplus. We now have the lowest African-American and Hispanic-American unemployment rates in the entire history of the United States of America. [applause]. Average take-home pay for working families, after taxes, after inflation is up $3,500 per year. Instead of quadrupling the national debt like the last bunch did, we quadrupled the value of the stock market. We've seen our economy moving in the right direction.

A lot of work to do

But at the dawn of a new century, we realize fully well that we have a lot of work to do to make sure that no one is left behind, and we have to begin with core labor rights. We have seen what happens when we do not have a strong labor movement. I always have believed, well let me put it this way, I think the United States of America has been and is the greatest nation in the history of the earth for a lot of reasons, mainly because of our people and because of the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. Our founders were geniuses, and I think, I think God's hand was on the United States of America when it was founded and is today. That's my belief. You may look at it a different way, but that's my belief. [applause].

One of the secrets for how we have endured and thrived all this time is that in the fabric of our Constitution has been a system called checks and balances, so that there's no unhealthy concentration of power in any one particular part of the government, and that's preserved freedom. Well the way I look at it--this is what I started to say a minute ago--I think that same principle, checks and balances, ought to apply in the workplace so that there's not an unhealthy concentration of power at the expense of employees, and organizing is one of the ways to provide those checks and balances. [applause].

So workers must have the freedom to exercise their right to organize without employer interference. They must have the right to choose to better their lives by joining unions. We know that the values that you uphold and fight for benefit all working families, organized or not. Because the way that system of checks and balances can work is that when you get the power to defend yourself and to stand up for yourselves, you end up helping not only yourselves, but all working people, because you establish a standard and you plant the seeds of justice and fairness in the hearts of individuals who may not even belong to a union.

And I think it is no coincidence that the conditions and position of working people began to decline somewhat at the same time when union membership began to decline somewhat. And I think that it's no coincidence that it's started to go back up again at a time when you're organizing more workers and union membership is starting to go back up. [applause].


And that's why I want you to know I am not about to let the Republicans roll back labor rights. We're going to fight 'em. [cheers, applause]. If recent history is any guide, we can expect them to try to silence working families, to try to privatize Social Security, to try to drain away education funding with vouchers, to try to pass national right-to-work laws, to try to pass national paycheck deception, to try to weaken the NLRB.

I am proud to be a part of an administration in which President Bill Clinton has vetoed every anti-labor bill that has ever come to his desk. And if they send another one, he'll veto it again. [applause]. And if they try it after the year 2000, with your help, I'll stop them myself. [applause].


But we got to do more than just play defense. I want to do more than just be the goalie that keeps the other team from getting one in the net. That's not enough. We've got to go on the offense and level the playing field or the hockey rink if you will. And I'm proud that we have proposed as part of our offense a 10 percent increase in funding for OSHA, a 35 percent increase in enforcement in our wage and hour laws and the highest level of NLRB funding in the history of the United States of America. [applause].

But that's just the beginning, that's just the beginning. I want to work toward a 21st century where work pays a good, decent living wage [applause] and where every worker has the education and training that is needed to get ahead.

Now we got to start on this agenda with a strong economy for the future and that means, of course, keeping the prosperity going and continuing the approach that has allowed us to escape the trickle-down disasters that our economy experienced in the past. I believe that it's time for another commonsense increase in the minimum wage--a dollar over the next two years. [applause]. I also think that it is time that we re-dedicate ourselves to this core principle: An equal day's pay for an equal day's work. [applause].

Health Care

Now next I believe of course that we need to strengthen our health care and retirement programs for the new century and the new millennium. Now here again I am part of a tradition that I am proud of. My father wrote the first Medicare plan to pass the United States Senate and was instrumental in getting the one that did pass one year later passed the House and Senate. I want to make sure that Medicare maintains its commitment to providing adequate care for all elderly Americans, not turn it into some voucher system or a way to coerce the elderly into managed care without adequate safeguards. We can't go down that road. [applause]. And we cannot do this by raising Medicare's eligibility age either. Americans aged 55, already Americans aged 55 to 65 are the fastest growing group of the uninsured, and we can't make that number any higher than it already is; we need to reduce it. And what we will do is commit 15 percent of our hard-earned surplus to making sure that Medicare is strengthened and improved. And I think that we should add a prescription drug benefit…[applause].

And many of you know from your daily work that it is time for our country to invest more in long-term care. American families out there need the help. My generation is the first generation with more parents than children. Think about it. The average age is increasing; family size is decreasing. Our medical bills for our parents are more than the medical bills for our children. And that's true of the average family in this country. It's true for families that have a child with continuing disabilities that need long term care. So let's have a tax credit for the aged ailing or disabled and do more for the home care workers that take care of our parents. [cheers, applause]. We should help to register home care workers and train home care workers so that Americans know that the quality of home care is high and reliable. I think that's an important step forward.

Just a few more points here. I want to thank you also for helping us to make sure that children have health insurance. We have made the largest investment in children's health care since the day that Medicaid was created. We're going to continue to need all your help to make sure that all the ones that are eligible are signed up for it, and we need to work for the day when all Americans have access to affordable health care. And we can't rest until we reach that goal. [applause]. We need to continue, in other words, to move toward that critical goal of enabling our public hospitals, our communities, and our university health centers to provide basic, affordable care for all of the millions of working families who do not have any insurance.

And we need to start in all of these efforts on health care by finally once and for all passing the health care patient's bill of rights. Why are they waiting on that…? [applause].

…I don't know if you've heard this one, Andy, about three neighbors who died and went to Heaven at the same time. They went to Saint Peter, and Saint Peter met 'em at the gate and interviewed them. And he said to the first one, "What did you do on Earth?" And she said, "I was a doctor; I cured the sick all my life." And Saint Peter said, "Well come on in to Heaven." And he asked the second one, "What did you do?" And he said, "I was a teacher; I taught children all my life." And Saint Peter said, "Well come on in to Heaven." And he turned to the third one and said, "What did you do?" And the third one hesitated a little bit and looked a little sheepish and finally looked up and he said, "I ran an HMO." [laughter]. Saint Peter hesitated a little bit and thought and finally he said, "Well come on in, but you can only stay three days." [laughter, applause].

Let me tell you a true story that was told to me by a doctor in Dearborn, Michigan about a patient of his who came into the emergency room and right in the emergency room this patient's heart stopped, and he died right there. And the doctor rushed and got one of those, what do you call 'em? defibrillators and he got some help and with great effort finally brought this person back to life and eventually restored his health. Sent the bill to the HMO, and the HMO refused to pay on the grounds that it was not an emergency. [laughter]. Now understand this man was dead. [laughter]. Now to the Republicans the absence of a heart may not seem like an emergency [laughter].

…doesn't cover 100 million Americans, it doesn't give a right to an appeal, it doesn't do the things that it needs to do. And when you see it compared to the Democratic patient's bill of rights, note the difference. The difference is a little bit like the veterinarian and the taxidermist who went into business together and they put a sign out in front of their mutual establishment that said, "Either way you get your dog back." [laughter]. It makes a difference. We need to pass the real patient's bill of rights.

Now I also look forward to working with all of you to help more than half a million American workers who suffer from hypodermic needle stick injuries every year. [applause]. On behalf of all health care workers you have spoken up and made us aware of problems like this one. Our Labor Department is working right now through OSHA to review current guidelines to make sure that workers have the up to date medical devices to limit that terrible risk, and we're going to build on your historic victory in California last year and make sure that our nation has safe needles to save lives of health care workers. [applause].

Now I mentioned Medicare, but before I close I want you to know that I am not leaving out Social Security. There's no greater priority than to make sure that Social Security remains strong, remains strong, because some of these risky tax schemes the Republicans have been talking about with the surplus that ought to be safeguarded to make sure that we first of all save Social Security. We're not going to allow them to get away with it. They've been talking about raising the retirement age and all kinds of other ideas. I'll tell you what, as long as I'm standing and able to speak, I will work every single day to make sure that the people who work on their feet every day get the retirement they deserve. And we've committed 62 percent of the budget surplus to make sure…[applause].

And of course the last issue that I'll just briefly mention is the one that I think is probably as close to the key to ensuring a bright economic future as any other. And that is to make sure that every single American has a high quality education and an opportunity to get job training. It is time to move forward. [applause]. We need to reduce class size, we need to have smaller schools, we need to have more discipline, we need to listen to the alarm bell that rang out at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado--and God bless those families out there. We need to understand that we need to do an awful lot more to upgrade the job that we do with our children in the schools, and in our families and in our communities. We need to help working parents balance work and family. We need to help them have time with their children without losing pay or overtime pay. We need to make it possible for working Americans to…[applause].

So ladies and gentlemen, I do congratulate you. Your record of achievement is truly historic. Not so long ago if you had asked someone how likely is it that a union in our country will score a bigger gain in the late 1990s than any union did in the heyday of the labor movement when it first began and hit its stride, they probably would have said, "No those days are gone." Well they're not gone. In fact you're breaking the records right now. You've reclaimed the initiative; you're moving forward. We need to keep our prosperity going and we need to keep your success going. We share a mission to create a bright future for all working families in this country, to create a 21st century that is worthy of our children. And in order to accomplish it, I would just like to ask that you remember an old Tennessee saying: Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize. [cheers, applause].


Joanne [Local 99 in Los Angeles]: Mr. Vice President, I'm a special education assistant; I'm a member of Local 99 in Los Angeles. I work with young children. And daily I see the terrible problems that they have seeking health care because they have no insurance. And what I want to know is are you going to promise us health care by the year 2004 when you become President of the United States.

Gore: You have a way with words [laughter] and I appreciate the way you asked that question. I do believe, as I've said here earlier, that all Americans must have access to basic, affordable health care coverage. And I think the place to start is by making sure that all children are covered as quickly as possible. And I will move heaven and earth to make sure that every child in this nation has an affordable, basic health [applause]…yes ma'am.

Otis [Local 47 in Cleveland]: Good evening Mr. President--Mr. Vice President. [laughter].

Gore: I like your way with words also. [laughter].

Otis: My question is about the right to have a union and vote for a union in my nursing home. I was involved our…in our nursing home. And our employer…would not let us sit and talk alone where we could have our own discussions for meetings. He told us that the unions would only take our money and wouldn't give us anything in return. And my question in whether you would be willing to speak up on the right of employers not to interfere with our right for a union.

Gore: …I hope you live a long time, but I don't care how long you live, I guarantee you you will never encounter a candidate for president of the United States who feels more strongly than I do about the right to organize. I believe that the right to organize is a right that all Americans have and it must be protected.

Now let me tell you why I feel this way. I told you a little bit about how I came to this feeling, but there's more. I've had friends--I grew up in two places; I grew up here in Washington where my father was in the Congress and every summer we went back home. Every summer, every Christmas, every time that we'd get in the car and drive 18 hours in those days. And I have friends that I grew up with there especially who have gone through experiences that really have opened my eyes and my heart to what this calling is about at the human level. Somebody who goes through an organizing drive and plays by the rules and follows the law and goes out and talks to the men and women in the workplace as they debate the issues and make a hard decision--for many it's a hard decision--and finally they say okay I'm going to vote to have a union, and they count the votes and a majority of votes yes. Why isn't that it? Why doesn't that settle…[applause].

Why is it that after that point, after you've reached the point where you've counted the votes and you've ascertained that a majority has made a decision, and in the American way a result has been arrived at, why is it that years sometimes pass, and every tricky loophole in the book and some that are not in the book, are used to subvert and overturn the will of the majority in that workplace? Because they aren't wealthy, because they aren't powerful, because they don't have connections, because they don't know all of those loopholes… And it may take 'em a time to get the representative from the union that they are not officially not belonging to yet, to come down and get involved in this; it may be a long time before the resources can be amassed, but I'm telling you the law ought to protect people in that situation.

I believe what happened is in 1981 a new bunch came into power in the executive branch of our government. [boo]. You remember. Up until that time there was a prevailing stigma associated with gross union-busting, so that someone who just pulled out all the stops and hired people to come in and use all these tricks and stomp down the rights of the people who have tried to organize, they would feel a stigma associated with that. That's unfair; that's wrong. But starting in '81 when that new bunch came in here, they tried to remove that stigma; they tried to act like it would be in the larger best interest of the country if they could just stop organizing drives all over the nation. And it's not only organizing drives. Sometimes they'll finally get the election certified and get organized, and then they'll go through the whole thing all over again in the collective bargaining process. So that the negotiation goes on and on and on. It's like the old rope a dope that Mohammed Ali used. I just believe that that rope a dope needs to be thrown out of the law book. They ought not be able to use it. I'm for you. I'm for you. I'm for you. [applause].

Lucinda [Los Angeles]: We've heard a lot about a crisis in Social Security, how it won't be there for us. Do you have a plan for making Social Security stronger without handing over our payroll taxes to Wall Street?

Gore: I am opposed to the radical agenda that some have put forward, some of those extensive privatization schemes that you have heard about. So the answer is that I'm opposed to that. But let me give you what I think needs to be done.

First of all, the more we keep our prosperity going and keep our economy growing, the more we naturally extend the life of the Social Security Trust Fund. That process has already been happening. So having a good sound economic policy, instead of going back to the old risky tax schemes and the supply side nonsense, that's really the first thing that needs to be done to protect Social Security.

But beyond that, we have to recognize that the Baby Boom generation, of which I'm a part and I see some others out there [laughter], when the Baby Boom generation retires starting around 15 years from now, there's going to be a big shift from the working category to the retired category. And instead of there being three people working for every one person retired, there's going to be only a little over two people working for every one retired. So no matter how strong the economy is and remains, we're still going to have to make some adjustments.

Now here's what I think is the way to do it. And you've heard this before, but let me just reiterate it. That last bunch nearly ran this economy into the ground and created the biggest budget deficits in history. We have listened to and implemented the ideas of working families and we've run up the biggest budget surplus in history. Now isn't it fair to dedicate a substantial portion of that budget surplus in order to solve the most important long-term financial problem that our country is facing…[applause]


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