When I ask Bernie Sanders about the surge of teachers’ strikes that swept the country earlier this year, he perks up, applauding the teachers’ display of working-class power. “The teachers may be the tip of the spear here,” he declares in his heavy Brooklyn accent.
In many ways, the strikes illustrate Sanders’ theory of political change. He has long insisted that the key to moving the country in a more progressive direction is to make ambitious demands and build movements capable of achieving them. Striking teachers in states from West Virginia to Arizona bucked the traditional tried-and-failed mechanisms for obtaining better pay and working conditions, and joined together by the tens of thousands to act. By withholding their labor, they won key demands.
At a time of staggering income inequality and stagnant wages, with unions facing an all-out assault from the Right, the teachers’ strikes have served as a rare bright spot for labor, proving that workers can still take on conservative politicians and their corporate backers. Now, with the Supreme Court’s Janus decision poised to bruise public-sector unions, Sanders is attempting to help revive the U.S. labor movement.
Over the spring, Sanders trekked across the country to stand with low-wage workers at corporations such as Disney and Amazon, spotlighting their efforts to win better treatment on the job. In May, he introduced the Workplace Democracy Act, a sweeping bill that would prevent employers from using certain anti-union tactics, make it easier for workers to unionize, and undo so-called right-to-work laws that drain unions of resources. The bill has secured support from almost a third of Senate Democrats, including prospective 2020 presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
In a sprawling interview with In These Times, Sanders discusses how unions can respond to Janus, the fight to move the Democratic Party left, the recent victories of democratic socialist candidates and why he believes the 2018 midterms are the most important of his lifetime.
Why do you see labor issues as a critical rallying point in 2018?
In my view, there is really no way the middle class in this country is going to grow unless we build the trade union movement. Virtually all of the power rests with employers and large corporations. Workers without unions are finding it very difficult to get the kind of wages and benefits that they need.
The statistics are very clear that workers in union companies are earning better wages and have far better benefits than nonunion workers. And the working people in this country know it. In overwhelming numbers, workers want to join unions.
But it is increasingly difficult for them to do so. That is because of the power of employers to intimidate workers, to threaten to move their companies away, and to fire workers who are trying to organize. So it is very, very difficult now for workers to have a union. That has got to change.
You named your bill the Workplace Democracy Act. Why do you think it’s important for workers to be able to practice more democracy on the job?
It’s an issue that we don’t talk about as a nation very much. Millions and millions of people are waking up in the morning and saying, “Oh God, I have to go to work and I hate my job. I feel exploited. I feel powerless. I feel like a cog in a machine.” If we believe in democracy, it’s not just voting every four years, or every two years – it’s about empowering your whole life and having more say in what you do all day.
Workers who are in a union have the ability to have their voices heard and to express their discontent in terms of working conditions. So unions empower ordinary people to have a little bit more control over their lives.
Less than 11 percent of Americans currently belong to unions, and since taking office, the Trump administration has been waging an all-out assault on workers’ rights. Yet in recent months, teachers have gone on strike across the country. Polling shows that younger people have a more favorable opinion of unions than older Americans. Are you optimistic about the future of the labor movement?
Yes, I am. With these teachers’ strikes – especially those taking place in so-called conservative states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma – teachers have basically said, “Enough is enough.” We have to make sure that our kids get the educations that they need, that we attract good people into the teaching profession. Teachers almost spontaneously stood up and fought back and took on very right-wing legislatures. This was, I think, a very significant step forward.
The teachers may be the tip of the spear here, because you’ve got millions of people watching and saying, “Wait a minute, I work two or three jobs to make a living, 60 hours a week, and can’t afford to send my kids to college. Meanwhile, my employer is making 300 times what I make and he gets a huge tax break.”
I see an anger and a resentment among working families. They want an economy that rewards the work of ordinary people and doesn’t just allow the billionaires to get even richer. That’s what the teachers’ strikes are all about.
In terms of younger people, they’re looking at a nation where technology is exploding, where workers’ productivity has risen, and yet the average young person today has a lower standard of living than his or her parents. Younger people are saying, “What is going on? This is the wealthiest country in the history of the world – why am I still living at home? Why am I struggling to pay off my student debt 10 years after I graduated college? Why can’t I afford healthcare?” I think young people are smart enough to look around and say maybe we need unions to get the kinds of wages and benefits that working people are entitled to.
The Supreme Court’s Janus decision will spread right to work to the public sector nationwide. How can workers respond?
The Workplace Democracy Act would make it illegal for states to pass right-to-work legislation. The people of this country have a right to organize, they have a right to form trade unions, and it is not acceptable that states are denying them that right.
The Janus case is a very significant setback for the union movement. The Right is already trying to mobilize public employees to leave their unions. What we have to do is an enormous amount of organizing and educating to explain to workers: “You think you’re going to save a few bucks by not paying union dues, but in the long run you’re going to be a lot worse off when you don’t have a union negotiating a decent contract for you. If you want the benefits of that contract, you’ve got to pay your fair share of dues.”
Why do you think it’s important to highlight the plight of workers at Disney and Amazon?
In terms of Amazon, the CEO, Jeff Bezos, is the wealthiest person in the world right now. His wealth has increased in the first four months of this year by about $275 million a day. You got that? A day. That sort of astronomical number is hard to believe.
Amazon is doing phenomenally well, and yet you have thousands of employees in Amazon warehouses who are paid wages so low that the average taxpayer in this country has got to subsidize Amazon by providing them food stamps, or Medicaid, or publicly subsidized affordable housing. The taxpayers of this country should not have to subsidize a guy whose wealth is increasing by $275 million every single day. That is obscene and that is absurd. This speaks to the power of the people at the top who use their power to become even richer at the expense of working families.
With Disney, you have a corporation that made $9 billion in profit last year – a very, very profitable company. CEO Bob Iger recently reached an agreement for a $423 million, four-year compensation package. And yet he’s paying the workers in Disneyland – the people in Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck costumes, the people who serve food, the people who collect the tickets and manage the rides – starvation wages. Eighty percent of the workers there make less than $15 an hour.
Living expenses are very high in Anaheim [where Disneyland is]. Many people cannot afford an apartment and are living in their cars. They don’t have enough money for food. So here you have a profitable corporation reaching an extraordinary compensation package for their CEO and paying starvation wages to their workers. These are the kind of issues that need to be highlighted.
Between 1978 and 2017, we’ve seen the union membership rate in the United States fall by more than half. Over this same period, the Democratic Party has taken a more corporate-oriented turn. In President Obama’s first term, Democrats were criticized for failing to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have enshrined card check, a feature of your bill. Do you think the Democratic Party establishment has been asleep at the wheel on protecting labor rights?
If your question is whether, for too many years, the Democratic Party has been paying more attention to corporate interests than the needs of working people, then the answer is yes. Ultimately, the fight is over the future of the party. The Democratic Party has got to decide, to quote Woody Guthrie, “Which side are you on?” You cannot be on the side of Wall Street and large profitable corporations and very wealthy campaign contributors while you’re claiming to be the party of working people. Nobody believes that. You can’t do both. And right now, the Democratic Party has got to decide which side it is on, and I’m doing everything that I can to make it the party of working people.
We need a party that has the guts to stand up to the 1% and to represent working families. I think it’s the right thing to do, and from a public policy point of view, I think it will make this a much better country – to put policies in place that end our high level of poverty, to address the fact that we’re the only major country not to guarantee healthcare, that we’re not being as strong as we should on climate change; that we haven’t made public colleges and universities tuition-free. Those are all ideas that will improve life in the United States of America. They’re also great political ideas.
You have worn the mantle of democratic socialist throughout your political career. Today we’re seeing socialism increase in popularity among younger people, and democratic socialists are winning local primaries and elections in states such as New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Montana. What do you think this shift means?
Our opponents can say, “Oh, democratic socialist, it’s radical, it’s fringe-y, it’s crazy.” But when you go issue by issue and you ask the American people what they think, they say, “Yeah, that makes sense.” For example, should the United States join every other major country and guarantee healthcare for all by moving toward Medicare for All? Is that a radical idea? No. Because healthcare is a right, not a privilege. Young people say, “Yeah, of course. That should be a right, yeah. My grandma is on Medicare, she likes it. Why can’t I get it?” Not a radical idea.
Today, in many respects, a college degree is as valuable as a high school degree was 50 years ago. So, when we talk about public education, it should be about making public colleges and universities tuition-free. Is that a radical idea? I don’t think so.
At a time when you have three people, including Jeff Bezos, who own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the American people, is it a radical idea to say that we should significantly raise taxes on the very wealthy and large profitable corporations? Not a radical idea. Rebuilding our infrastructure, creating millions of jobs. Not a radical idea. Immigration reform. Criminal justice reform. The vast majority of the American people support both those ideas.
We are managing to get these ideas out there. The ideas are catching on. And to young people especially, they make sense.
You recently introduced a Medicare for All bill with a historic number of co-sponsors. Why do you think so many Democrats are now jumping on board with universal, single-payer healthcare?
The overwhelming majority of Democratic voters now support Medicare for All. So if I’m running for office and I see a poll that shows that 70 or 80 percent of people say that we should have Medicare for All, I don’t have to be the bravest guy in the room to say I think I’m going to make that part of my program.
And by the way, you’ve got many Republicans today who benefit from Medicare, and their sons and daughters are saying, “My dad has Medicare; I’d like it as well.” So you have the majority of Americans and the overwhelming majority of Democrats now supporting it, so for many candidates it simply becomes common sense and good politics.
Do you think unions have done enough to educate their membership about the threat the Trump administration poses to workers’ rights?
President Trump is a fraud. He is a pathological liar. And he certainly lied to working people during his campaign on issue after issue after issue.
You will recall he told the American people that he would not cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Yet he brought forth a budget that called for a $1.4 trillion cut in Medicaid, a $500 billion cut over a 10-year period to Medicare and a $64 billion cut to the Social Security Disability Fund. On healthcare, he told the American people that he was going to provide “insurance to everybody” and then he supported legislation that would have thrown as many as 32 million people off of health insurance.
I think some unions do a very good job of educating their membership. Some unions do not. What is very, very difficult in this era of media consolidation and corporate media in general is getting the word out. If Trump sends out some kind of crazy tweet, in a few minutes the media will write about it. What they are not writing about is issues of concern to working people and low-income people.
You’ve said that you’re not focused on the 2020 presidential race at the moment. But if you were to decide to run again, what are the reasons that would motivate you to enter the race?
What I have said publicly is the honest truth. I happen to believe that 2018 is the most important midterm election in my lifetime. I do not believe that a blue wave is something automatic. It won’t happen without an enormous amount of work.
Republicans have, as you know, unimaginable amounts of money to put into these campaigns and Trump is prepared to work hard and go around the country rallying his supporters, so 2018 is where my mind is at. And I will do everything that I can to see that we end one-party rule here where Republicans have control of the Senate and the House. After the midterm elections, we can have another discussion.