As President Joe Biden signed into law an agreement Saturday that would shield wealthy tax cheats from stronger IRS enforcement while at the same time enacting cuts to key anti-poverty programs, Senator Bernie Sanders and other progressive allies were busy denouncing the immoral, low-wage economic system in the United States in which just a small handful of mega-billionaires have accumulated more wealth than tens of millions of hard-working but low-paid workers and their families.
At a “Rally to Raise the Wage” in Charleston, South Carolina on Saturday, the independent politician and two-time presidential candidate railed against the inequality that remains so pervasive in the country and the political forces that seek to divide the working class.
“The reason we are here today is not complicated,” Sanders said. “In the richest country in the world, we demand an economy that works for all, not just the few.”
“In every age, moral people have had to rise up and decide to make the moral case that things have to change and injustice has to move.” —Bishop William J. Barber II
“It is not moral that three people on top own more wealth than the bottom half of American society, 165 million Americans,” Sanders declared during his speech. “That’s not moral. That’s not right. That’s not what should exist in a democratic society.”
“It is not moral that 3 people on top own more wealth than the bottom half of American society, 165 million Americans.— Union of Southern Service Workers (@RaiseUptheSouth) June 3, 2023
That’s not moral.
That’s not right.
That’s not what should exist in a democratic society.”@BernieSanders in South Carolina rallying to #RaiseTheWage pic.twitter.com/CpdW0DigTY
Sanders was joined on the tour through the south—which also included stops in Durham, North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee—by Bishop William J. Barber II, founding director of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School, who said Sanders had asked him to attend specifically to discuss the moral case for combating poverty and raising wages.
“When Jesus started his ministry,” said Barber, surrounded by members of the audience he had called up to gather around him on stage, “he said I’m coming to preach good news to the poor[…] meaning those who had been made poor by the economic exploitation of Rome.”
Barber told the crowd that “there are over 2,000 scriptures in the Bible” detailing the worth of the poor and the value of laborers.
“So what our movement is about, is precisely the opposite of what the big-money interests want. They want to divide us up and we are determined to bring working people together.” —Sen. Bernie Sanders
“The Bible does not talk about taking a women’s right from her body,” Barber said. “The Bible does not talk about hating people because of their sexuality. The Bible does not talk about prayer in the school. The Bible does not talk about putting up the Ten Commandments. But more than 2,000 times—more than any other subject other than self-worship idolatry—the Bible says the way to please God is how we treat the least of these and those in the margins.”
“In every age,” he continued, “moral people have had to rise up and decide to make the moral case that things have to change and injustice has to move.”
In contrast to a living wage of $17 an hour at the heart of the rally, Bishop Barber said the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 should be seen as a “death wage,” given the rate at which poverty kills in the country.
“Poverty is the 4th leading cause of death in America. It’s higher than homicide. $7.25 is a poverty wage which means $7.25 is a death wage.— Union of Southern Service Workers (@RaiseUptheSouth) June 3, 2023
We’ve got to fight against people dying.” @RevDrBarber with @BernieSanders in South Carolina rallying to #RaiseTheWage pic.twitter.com/ujt00W9w7h
Barber told the diverse South Carolina audience in attendance—including those standing beside him who were older people and younger people of different racial, religious, and sexual identities—that their unity and solidarity in the face of economic inequality and social injustice remains their greatest asset.
The people in power, said Barber, “They are afraid of this room.”
Invoking Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Barber explained how in 1965, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Alabama state house “and said that the greatest fear of the southern aristocracy and the oligarchy was for the masses of poor Negroes and poor white folk to get together and form a powerful new voting bloc that would shift the economic architecture of the nation.”
“If they are cynical enough to be together, we oughta be smart enough to come together around the moral agenda.”
“And I want to suggest,” he continued, “if that’s what they’re afraid of: Let’s build it! Let’s built it and maybe in the process some of them will even be redeemed and stop hurting people. Who gets up in the morning and all you can think about is how you can take somebody’s healthcare? Who gets up in the morning and asks, ‘How I can use my power to hurt somebody?'”
He made a final point about those in power and how the forces at work denying freedom and dignity to certain people in society are also the same forces attacking democracy and economic equality.
“The same people who are attacking gay people, are attacking our voting rights,” Barber said. “The same people who are attacking trans people, are attacking our healthcare. The same people trying to take away a woman’s right are also against living wages. If they are cynical enough to be together, we oughta be smart enough to come together around the moral agenda.”
Barber said the southern states are “key” and must not be ignored by federal politicians, arguing that the Carolinas, Tennessee, and others are not necessarily red states, but just states that have been “intentionally divided” and where workers have been disempowered.
“We need a living wage and we need it now,” Barber declared. “It’s time for change and justice has got to move. You’ve got to make them hear you. You’ve got to make them see you. You’ve got to make them feel your power.”
He added: “This is a moral fight. We can’t allow corporate greed to sell out and tear the souls and substance of this nation apart. This is a nation-saving fight.”
Prior to Barber, local hairdresser Lydia Stewart spoke about working conditions at the salon business that employs her, Great Clips, and the organizing effort she and her colleagues have undertaken with the Union of Southern Service Workers to increase workplace safety and win higher wages.
“At my job we’re organizing [with @RaiseUpTheSouth] because change has to be brought. My store is mostly Black women and they have no respect for us, they treat us like a pair of hands.” @GreatClips worker Lydia Steward with @BernieSanders and @RevDrBarber #RaiseTheWage pic.twitter.com/UoplyzxdkP— Union of Southern Service Workers (@RaiseUptheSouth) June 3, 2023
During the rally, State Rep. Wendell Gilliard (D-111) also spoke and talked about the need for a true living wage in the state that should be no less than $17 an hour.
“We have come a long way,” Gilliard said during his remarks, “fighting for the rights of ‘We the People.’ This is not about party, it’s always been about the people. Charlestonians work hard and deserve more for what they do to keep this region running. They deserve more than a minimum wage—they deserve a living wage!”
“With rising costs of living,” Gilliard continued, “more and more of our neighbors, our friends, and our family members will slip into poverty unless they see an increase… $17 an hour is a living wage. It will help poverty from swallowing up more victims and help increase the standard of living here in Charleston.”
LIVE from CHARLESTON: No one in America should be forced to work for starvation wages. Join us as we rally in South Carolina for an increase in the minimum wage. https://t.co/5aQjgGGlnw— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 3, 2023
In closing his speech for the rally, Gilliard said the event with Sanders and Barber could not simply be a moment in time, but must signify the existence of a movement ready to fight for the long haul.
“It cannot be a moment in time,” the state lawmaker said. “It has to be a movement that will live until we get it done.”
In his headliner address, Sanders echoed what Bishop Barber argued, that the ruling elite and monied oligarchy “wins” when they divide up the working class and those living in poverty.
“In every way that you can think,” said Sanders, “there are really smart people—out there polling today—saying: How do I get you to vote against your own self-interest? How do I get black and white and Latino and Native American, Asian American, gay, and straight against each other so that the big-money interest laugh all the way to the bank.”
“So what our movement is about, is precisely the opposite of what the big-money interests want,” he continued. “They want to divide us up and we are determined to bring working people together—black and white and Latino—all of us together around an agenda that works for us not just the billionaire class!”