Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown
MS. VARRETT: Please join us in welcoming home our Madam Vice President, Kamala Harris. (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everyone! Good morning, SEIU.
MS. HENRY: We welcome you — as our Secretary-Treasurer, April Verrett, said — home.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MS. HENRY: We are so grateful to have you with us this morning. And April and I are delighted to be able to ask a set of questions about the amazing experience and leadership that you’ve demonstrated as the Madam Vice President of the United States.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MS. HENRY: I want to begin by asking about your reflection of the current moment. Over the last few years, you know we’ve seen unprecedented attacks on our rights and freedoms throughout the — throughout and following the Trump presidency and the pandemic. For many Americans, life seems uncertain.
Black, white, brown, Indigenous, API, immigrant Americans — life is uncertain. And whether they’re living in cities or in rural areas, people of all ages experience that uncertainty.
How are you thinking about the moment we are in?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Mary Kay and April. It’s so good to be with you, and it’s so good to be with all of the members of SEIU who are here — (applause) — the leaders who are here.
And let me just start by thanking you. You are local, state, and national leaders, all in one person, each of you. Because the work you do, as we were talking about, whether it is the accomplishments of Dee Lo — and, Dee Lo, again, I want to say congratulations. It was so good to hang out with you in Detroit. Look how far we’ve come. (Laughs.)
Las Vegas — what you just achieved last night. Congratulations. Right? (Applause.)
Each of these accomplishments, whether it be at a local, a state, or a national level, gives people not only a sense of hope — which is so critical in a moment like this, where so many are being attacked — but it also reminds people of what they have a right to demand.
You know, there is so much about our movement — about the labor movement, the union movement — that has been about reminding people of what they have a right to demand and expect at a basic level, in terms of dignity, but also to have the dignity of their work respected and acknowledged in every way that is about wages and benefits and just the language we use to talk about the importance and the value to all of society of these workers.
So, I want to just start by saying thank you, because I know it is tireless. I know the leaders in this room over the years — first of all, you don’t give up, and there has been many a time that you have shed a tear because you care so much and you know what we’re up against. But you don’t give up.
And to the benefit of people you may never ne- — meet, people who may never know your name, the work you do is changing lives and improving the condition of our country and are standing when we say we have certain values and ideals about the equality of people and the right of people to happiness and to a certain quality of life.
So, I start by saying thank you. I start by saying thank you. (Applause.) And that being said, we’ve got a fight on our hands. We’ve got a fight on our hands.
You know, many of you know I am a daughter of parents who were active in the Civil Rights Movement in Berkeley and Oakland, California, back in the day.
And when I think about all of the hard-fought, hard-won freedoms from those days through the days that we stood — and I was proud in the year of 2004 to perform some of the first same-sex marriages in the country — (applause) — when I look at where we are right now and how so many of those hard-won freedoms are under attack, how extremist so-called leaders are literally trying to take us backward, when part of the strength of our nation has always been a fight to strengthen our nation, understanding that that comes in many ways, including through the expansion of rights.
And now there is a concerted effort in our country by so- called leaders to restrict rights and to deny people the freedom to be. The freedom to be.
You look at what’s happening in Florida and Texas. You look at what the United States Supreme Court — the highest court in our land, the court of Thurgood Marshall, of RBG — just took a constitutional right from the people of America, from the women of America.
I was saying to Mary Kay and April, you know, I — I performed, in 2004, marriages. And so that’s about 20 years ago. And I’m looking at what’s happening in Florida, and I’m thinking about these teachers — many of whom are in their 20s — who are afraid to put up a photograph of themselves and their partner for fear that if they talk about the person they love, they might be fired. Think about that. In 20 years.
Think about what is happening in terms of the anti-Asian hate, the anti-immigrant hate. In Florida, they’re passing laws, proposing laws that would criminalize you for giving comfort and care to an undocumented immigrant, somebody who has fled circumstances where they were unsafe for a variety of reasons. And — and we’re saying we will criminalize giving comfort and care?
You look at what is happening in terms of in this year of our Lord 2023, and they’re trying to ban books.
I mean, I’ll date myself. I grew up having been assigned reading Simon — that book “1984.” How many had to read that book, too? (Laughter.)
You know what I’m talking about. Big Brother telling us what we can read?
And the thing that I think is most important to recognize about this moment when they are in a concerted effort that I believe is part of a national plan to attack hard-won freedoms is it is being done, I do believe, with the intention of suggesting that people should just sit down and be quiet and let it happen.
It is being done through some perverse belief that the sign of strength of a so-called leader is based on who you beat down instead of what we know is the sign of a leader: who you lift up. (Applause.) And so this is a time to fight.
And as we were talking about, you know — you know that story about the two pots of water and the two frogs?
So here is how it goes: Two pots of water. In one pot of water — they’re both on the stove, these pots of water. On one — in one pot of water, you put the frog in the pot; you slowly turn up the heat. That frog will adjust as the heat starts to turn up. And then the heat reaches boiling, and that frog perishes.
In the other pot of water, you turn up the heat immediately, and water starts boiling, and then you drop the frog in it. That frog will jump out.
Let’s not be the first frog. Let’s not be the first frog. (Applause.)
MS. VERRETT: So there are, in recent polling, I would say, folks who don’t want to be that first frog.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah. (Laughter.)
MS. VERRETT: Seventy-seven percent of Americans age 18 to 34 approve of unions. And workers in every industry are demanding more.
At the same time, we heard our President Biden in his State of the Union Address stand up for airport workers and consumers against airlines that are simply running amok.
And we’ve watched Starbucks break the law over and over again to stop their partners from getting the union that they want.
Tell us about the significant achievements in supporting workers and unions so far by this administration and what we can expect going forward.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, thank you, April. You know, you’re reminding me of something that many of the leaders here may know. But I believe it was historic in that the President decided, and we then hosted, a lot of the gig workers, including Starbucks workers, who are unionizing, at the White House — (applause) — in the Roosevelt Room, to have a meeting to highlight and uplift exactly what is happening in terms of this organizing — again, around what? — around the importance of recognizing the dignity of work and paying people the value of their work.
And — and so we feel very strongly about it. And I don’t need to tell anybody here: Joe Biden lives, breathes, and cares so deeply about the importance of strengthening and uplifting working people through strengthening and uplifting labor unions. (Applause.)
In fact, we believe our administration will prove to have been the most union-friendly administration in all of America’s history.
In fact, I — I co-chaired — I headed the labor task force with our — now he’s gone on, but Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and we spent the first year of our administration working on what would be 70 recommendations around how we uplift the federal workforce, because, of course, we could do that without an act of Congress; we could do it through an executive order. And the President accepted all 70 recommendations and — (applause) — right.
And it was to ask our agencies in the federal workforce to take a look at: Are we supporting organizing? Are we supporting collective bargaining? Is there anything that we are doing through the systems or — or rules that in any way would — would hinder that process?
And understand that the federal workforce is the largest — we’re the largest employer of any group of people.
So, when we do that, we have a full intention of allowing, then, those who are organizing in other sectors to point to what we are doing, to show what is possible, and to show what is right.
And so that’s some of the work we have done. But I will speak specifically about some of the issues that directly impact SEIU workers. And that has to do, for example, with what we have done because of SEIU’s leadership — and we heard you — to say, when we expand Medicaid benefits, that 80 percent of that will go to home healthcare workers’ wages. And that was a very specific piece of business — (applause) — that was critically important to recognize the — the value — the extraordinary value of our home healthcare workers.
The work that we did during the height of COVID, which was about extending by, I think it was $8,000, what we did around helping folks in terms of the childcare workforce. Some of that is the work that we have done already, but there’s more work to be done.
We still need to have legislation passed, and then fund it, to bring down the cost of childcare while holding up and lifting up the wages of childcare workers. (Applause.) We can’t have a false choice here.
The work that we need to do around nursing homes. So that was another piece of accomplishment, because of the partnership between our administration and SEIU, to say that we need to improve the staffing levels at nursing homes. (Applause.)
And a big part of that is, of course, saying that the wages and the — the benefits that — that — that the workers in nursing homes are receiving have to be increased. Because as I don’t need to tell everybody here, that’s some of the most noble work that anybody could do: to decide that you will give your life’s work to give support and love and care to somebody you’ve never met before.
Back when I ran for AG, I spent a day with Wendy Ko from San Francisco — SEIU worker, home healthcare worker. And I spent the day with her and saw firsthand what I knew, but I saw firsthand a home healthcare worker. That work is emotional, because you care. And it is physical. We’re talking about lifting people up. We are talking about changing a bed. We are talking about helping people accomplish their essential needs, whether it be to eat or to go to the bathroom.
We are talking about work that requires so much to give people who are in that condition in life a sense of dignity and joy.
That work is the work of saying, “I’m going to make you laugh today. I’m going to make you smile today. Today is a day where let’s go and take a walk and notice the beauty of the flowers that are blooming in spring.”
That’s the work of home healthcare workers. That is some of the most special work that anybody could do for somebody else.
And the fact that we have had a system that is paying pittance for the value of that work, I would match the value of that work up against anything, in terms of the value — (applause) — in terms of the value.
I mean, childcare work — many of you knew I — so, I — my mother raised me and my sister, and we had a second mother who lived two doors down, Ms. Shelton, who was part of that exodus of Black folks from the South to go to California. And she was from Louisiana.
And we lived on the apartment above Ms. Shelton’s nursery school. And Ms. Shelton was the matriarch of the community. She would sit down with mothers who would come in having a hard day or having a hard time at home, and counsel and give advice.
It is the work of knowing that that parent might have to work a little longer. And even though it’s time for you to go, you stay because you care about those children.
Again, God’s work. And it has to be acknowledged in terms of the value to all of society. The value to the entire economy, because of that work.
And so that’s — that’s why I’m always going to be with SEIU, in terms of fighting for what is right. (Applause.)
MS. HENRY: Thank you. Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. HENRY: On behalf of all of us and the 800,000 homecare workers and the 200,000 childcare workers, and then the 2 million more that are knocking on our door trying to figure out how to join together in a union, we honor your leadership and your deep commitment to understanding the value of this work that’s been written out of our nation’s labor laws and Social Security and so much more.
And that’s why we were so excited when you and President Biden signed an executive order just last April that some folks in this room had the honor of being in the Rose Garden when that was signed. We were so excited.
It’s clear that the Biden-Harris administration values care work. We had a little problem with the Congress backing that value and priority last session, but never mind.
You are leading through this executive action, and we’re so proud —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
MS. HENRY: — to stand with you in that.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you.
MS. HENRY: And it’s clear that it’s a priority of the administration. And I think you just spoke to the work, so I’m going to move on, if you agree, April, to the next question.