Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich's boss would have been proud of him.
Perched on a stool at the Maryland AFL-CIO's Baltimore headquarters yesterday, surrounded by some two dozen casualties of the state's wrenching workplace realignment, Mr. Reich combined soothing words and a stern message with the same personal touch that Bill Clinton parlayed into the presidency.
"I want to hear your stories and suggestions," the labor secretary told the group, whose ranks included workers laid off from Armco, Westinghouse, Esskay and other downsized or defunct Maryland plants.
Using a format that has become a trademark of the Clinton administration, Mr. Reich was in Baltimore to push a sweeping plan to overhaul the nation's unemployment-insurance system and to provide economic security at a time when job security is eroding despite an economic recovery.
The proposal, which reflects a central theme of the 1992 Clinton campaign, has been overshadowed by the administration's health-care and crime initiatives. But Mr. Reich did his best yesterday to push the issue to center stage. Although the unemployment rate is declining, he said, the long-term unemployed represent a growing percentage of the nation's jobless.
Ostensibly, the purpose of the meeting was to gather opinions from displaced workers in the city's Baltimore Works program on how best to restructure government efforts to help the jobless.
In reality, the meeting was part of a consensus-building expedition that included a speech to the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and a meeting with The Sun's editorial board to promote the administration's initiative.
For all his intent listening and curious questioning, Mr. Reich seemed certain of what he wants to do when the administration introduces its "re-employment insurance" program this spring.
Mr. Reich's premise is that the unemployment system was designed to tide over workers on temporary layoff but that three out of four of today's job losses are permanent.
The labor secretary, one of the most influential members of the Clinton Cabinet, said the administration's proposal is aimed at "rebuilding the skills of the American work force" through training programs for displaced workers. The proposal would preserve the basic unemployment-compensation system but would offer extended benefits to workers undergoing retraining.
Nothing Mr. Reich heard from the group at the AFL-CIO hall is likely to alter his thinking. The supportive group told stories that bolstered Mr. Reich's key assertions, and he used their experiences to bolster his arguments, much as Mr. Clinton did throughout the 1992 campaign.
Rennard Cruse, who has been out of work for more than a year since his job at Armco Steel vanished, described the shock and anger he felt after losing an earlier job in a plant closing after 22 years.
"I felt guilty, I felt used and so on," the middle-aged man told Mr. Reich. Mr. Cruse credited the city- and state-funded Baltimore Works program with helping him realize that the layoff was not his fault and with getting him into a retraining program.
Mr. Reich commiserated. "They all say they feel like it's their fault initially," he said, pointing out that one pillar of the administration plan is to provide counseling for laid-off workers who have little prospect of being recalled.
Michelle Gaines, who was laid off from Ames Department Stores in 1992 and recently landed a job with the help of Baltimore Works, decried the "unnecessary red tape" she had to go through to get unemployment compensation and retraining. Mr. Reich said the plan he envisions would provide "one-stop shopping" for the dislocated worker, with benefits and retraining programs offered out of the same office.
In a later interview, Mr. Reich addressed a key criticism of the administration's retraining efforts: that it is ineffective at a time when changing technology quickly makes the newly acquired skills as obsolete as the old ones.
The labor secretary expressed skepticism about programs that try to retain workers for a specific skill. He said a more effective approach would be to give such workers broader education to equip them for multiple opportunities.