Clinton offers 'thank you' for union support
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Just two weeks before he joins the private sector, outgoing President Clinton thanked organized labor leaders for 25 years of political support Monday as he helped dedicate the refurbished headquarters of the AFL-CIO.
President Clinton predicts the next four years will be challenging for labor leaders
"I don't even have the words to say how profoundly grateful I am for more than a quarter of a century to be your teammate," said Clinton, reminiscing about union donations and support during his unsuccessful 1974 congressional campaign -- his first bid for public office.
Clinton took advantage of his appearance before the AFL-CIO -- the nation's largest labor organization -- to accuse congressional Republicans of stalling on Democratic proposals for a $1-per-hour minimum wage hike. A tentative agreement to increase the current $5.15 per hour rate in exchange for a package of small business tax breaks fell apart during prolonged wrangling between the White House and Congress over the 2001 budget.
"These families should not be punished for the failure of Congress to act for the last two years since our first call for an increase in the minimum wage," said Clinton, who accused GOP lawmakers of "milking" the issue with hopes of gaining larger tax cuts under the incoming administration of George W. Bush.
Clinton predicted the next four years would be challenging for labor leaders, and urged union members to find ways to work with the Republican administration. But Clinton's own relationship with organized labor -- a traditional bedrock of Democratic support -- has not always been harmonious.
The AFL-CIO and other groups have tangled with the White House on a host of issues over the past years, beginning with Clinton's efforts to secure passage North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and permanent normalization of trade relations with China this past year.
The AFL-CIO also opposed White House moves to increase H-1B visas allowing high-tech companies to hire more foreign workers, and was instrumental in organizing protests during last year's World Trade Organization summit in Seattle designed to further liberalize global trade.
Although Clinton publicly urged WTO member nations to adopt standards and trade penalties to ensure fair worker standards, the meeting collapsed amid violent protests and was viewed as an embarrassment for the administration.
Despite those differences, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hailed Clinton's efforts to provide "a moral compass for the global economy.
"Even when we disagreed over an issue, it was always a disagreement of the head and never of the heart," said Sweeney. "We knew he believed firmly that he was fighting for working families."
Sweeney cited Clinton's stewardship of the booming U.S. economy and White House initiatives such as the Family and Medical Leave Act. Signed by the president in 1993, the law allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child or to deal with a serious illness in the family.