WASHINGTON -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. chief executive Lee Scott joined one of his toughest critics, labor leader Andrew L. Stern, yesterday to unveil a political campaign to promote universal health care coverage.
The two longtime antagonists are helping lead a coalition of labor and business leaders in trying to get Congress to end the nation's reliance on employer-backed health insurance and develop a system for providing universal low-cost coverage within five years.
"What unites us here today is our shared belief that it will be a far greater America when we get affordable health care for all Americans," Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, said at a news conference at a Capitol Hill hotel.
The coalition, calling its effort "Better Health Care Together," did not propose any specific government policies, nor did it commit to spending more private funds for insurance.
Scott and Stern were the event's star attractions because of their contentious history. Stern's union finances a nonprofit group, Wal-Mart Watch, which leaks damaging documents about the retailing giant and pressures it to change its business practices.
Wal-Mart is the largest private U.S. employer, with about 1.3 million workers. It has no unions in this country and provides health care benefits to fewer than half its employees.
Stern said he realizes there is "a risk" in being seen as Scott's partner, but insists the insurance deficit is so serious that labor and business leaders must try unorthodox approaches to force change.
Scott agreed that "we put aside disagreements to drive this debate forward."
Currently, most Americans rely on employers for health care coverage. But because other countries typically don't place that financial burden on corporations, U.S. companies are at a competitive disadvantage, Stern said. An estimated 1 of every 6 Americans lacks health insurance.
"This is not just a moral problem, but a major drag on American business competitiveness and job creation," Stern said.
Scott and Stern were joined by representatives from AT&T; Inc., Kelly Services Inc. and Intel Corp., as well as by the Communications Workers of America, which has roughly 700,000 workers in the telecommunications industry.
Democrat John D. Podesta, a former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, and Republican Howard H. Baker Jr., President Ronald Reagan's former chief of staff, introduced the speakers.
"I believe we have virtual unanimity that health care reform is an issue whose time has come," Baker said.
The coalition promised to recruit more members and convene a national health care summit by the end of May.
Stern said he initiated face-to-face meetings with Scott after he wrote an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal in July, encouraging corporations to work with unions to seek alternatives to the employer-based health coverage system.
Stern said he would continue to try to build alliances, even though he would not give eager news photographers the pose they wanted: Stern and Scott shaking hands. They sat on opposite sides of the podium.
Even that distance was not enough for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which finances WakeUpWalMart.com, another group dedicated to calling attention to what it regards as the retailer's failings.
Paul Blank, executive director of WakeUpWalMart.com, came to the news conference to denounce Wal-Mart's participation.
Blank called Scott a "hypocrite" for refusing to pledge not to financially support political candidates opposed to universal health care.