Sanders for Labor Day: Unprecedented Corporate Greed Demands Unprecedented Worker Response
“At a time of unprecedented corporate greed, we need an unprecedented worker response,” said Senator Bernie Sanders before an audience of 2,000 union activists at the UNI Global Union World Congress in Philadelphia on August 27. UNI Global is an international union federation with affiliates in 150 countries representing 20 million workers, including janitors, postal workers, call center workers, and retail employees.
Sanders highlighted the growing organizing by workers in the U.S., including the Teamsters and Auto Workers contract fights with UPS and the Big 3 automakers, as well as the union campaigns at Amazon, Starbucks, and Google. “While there is much to be concerned about in today’s economy,” Sanders said, “there is also some very good news. And that is: today we are seeing workers stand up and fight back in a way we have not seen in decades.”
Below is a lightly edited version of his remarks. —Editors.
There has not been a moment in modern history more urgent than now for workers to come together and join forces in solidarity.
Never before in human history have so few owned so much.
Never before in human history has there been such income and wealth inequality.
Never before in history have we had such concentrations of ownership.
Never before in history have we seen a billionaire class with so much political power.
And never before have we seen the unprecedented level of greed, arrogance and irresponsibility on the part of the ruling class.
We see this in the United States, and we see this in virtually every country on earth.
In this country, three people now own more wealth than the bottom half of society. Meanwhile, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, tens of millions struggle to put food on the table, find affordable housing, affordable health care, affordable prescription drugs, affordable childcare, and affordable educational opportunities.
At a time of unprecedented income and wealth inequality, while the billionaire class and the 1 percent are doing better than at any time in American history, over 60 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, while many work for starvation wages and under terrible working conditions.
Despite massive increases in worker productivity and an explosion in technology, the average American worker is making $45 a week less today than he or she did 50 years ago after adjusting for inflation, while the vast majority of our families need two breadwinners to survive.
And we’re seeing that trend all over the world. The billionaires become richer; the working class struggles; and the poor live in desperation.
OLIGARCHY, NOT DEMOCRACY
In this world today, very few major corporations are just national in scope. They are multinational, global operations. Companies like BlackRock, Vanguard, Apple, and Amazon have holdings in many parts of the world—constantly on the lookout for the cheapest possible labor and the weakest environmental standards.
And let’s be clear: with the growing concentration of ownership and more wealth and income inequality, we also see more political and media power on the part of the ruling class.
In the United States, billionaires play a huge role in the political process because they are legally able to spend as much as they want on political campaigns through what are called Super PACs. Bottom line: billionaires can spend unlimited amounts of money electing candidates who support their agenda and defeating candidates who oppose their agenda. This is not democracy; this is oligarchy.
And when we talk about concentration of ownership in the United States and the world, let us not forget the media. In the United States, eight large media conglomerates control 90 percent of what the American people see, hear, and read. And this kind of concentration of ownership is common throughout the world. Rupert Murdoch, for example, the right-wing billionaire, owns major media outlets in many, many countries.
In many respects, the major function of the corporate media is to deflect attention from the realities of working people’s lives, prevent a true understanding of what is going on, and make it hard for workers to organize for their common interests. In the United States for example, the working class of this country—the majority of our people—are never even defined as a “class.” The expression “working class” is virtually never mentioned in the media, nor are reasons ever given for why the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer.
It will not be easy, but we need to develop a strong international media that reflects the needs of the working class, not just the billionaire class that owns the media.
DOUBLED THEIR FORTUNES
As we look into the future, there are a number of important issues that we should be paying attention to. The Covid pandemic took over 6 million lives worldwide. Most of the people dying and most of the people getting sick were not the CEOs of large corporations or the 1 percent. Those folks were able to stay isolated in their lovely mansions and offices and do their work remotely on computers.
The people who were dying and getting sick were working people who had no choice but to go to work to feed their families. They were the nurses and doctors, warehouse workers, factory workers, police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, hotel workers, food service workers, and the many other professions who were out in the world, in day-to-day contact with others, and exposing themselves to illness and death.
These were the people who did the work, and kept the global economy going. These are the people who died and we will never forget their sacrifices.
Meanwhile, while tens of millions of workers became sick and many died, during the first two years of the pandemic the world’s 10 richest men more than doubled their fortunes from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion, while the incomes of 99 percent of humanity went down and an additional 160 million people were forced into poverty.
In the U.S. Senate, I am the chairman of a committee which deals with healthcare issues and let me tell you: neither the United States nor most other countries are prepared for future pandemics, which are likely. So we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us not only to prevent the next pandemic but to prevent millions more workers from dying unnecessarily—if and when the next major pandemic arises.
There’s another issue that cannot be ignored. And that is Climate Change. And once again, as the world becomes warmer, as we see more heat waves, drought, floods, forest fires, and extreme weather disturbances, it will be the working class of the planet that suffers the most. The people with the money will be much better able to protect themselves and their families.
Our job therefore is not only to combat climate change and dramatically cut carbon emissions, but to create many millions of jobs around the world as we move to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. With good planning, we can create a global economy which is clean, non-polluting, and makes our economies stronger not weaker.
And as part of that effort, we need an unprecedented level of international cooperation. We will not address the climate crisis unless that happens. We don’t need to spend billions more on the military in the United States, China, and the rest of the world. We don’t need more cold wars. We need to do our best to bring the world together to transform our energy systems, combat climate change, and save the planet.
REDUCE THE WORK WEEK
Another major concern that all of us should pay attention to is the explosion of new technologies and artificial intelligence. These technologies have the potential to do a great deal of good for humanity, or could cause devastating pain for tens of millions of workers.
There is no question but that many of the jobs you and your co-workers have today will not be here in 10 or 20 years. The question is: who makes the decisions as to what happens, and who benefits from those decisions.
The good news is that if, together, we make certain that the benefits of technology do not simply go to the 1 percent and the people who own that technology, there are unlimited possibilities as to what we can achieve.
With robotics and artificial intelligence, productivity will be increased and that increased productivity must benefit the workers of the world and not just the corporations that own and control that technology.
What does that mean? It means that instead of just throwing workers out on the street because new technologies take their jobs, we should be demanding that the work week be substantially reduced without loss of income.
In the United States, for example, for the last 80 years, the 40-hour work week has been the legal definition of full-time work. We can and should think about reducing the work week substantially and give workers the opportunity for more leisure, family time, and educational opportunities.
Bottom line: these new technologies could either be a disaster for the working class or could create the opportunity, for the first time in world history, for every man, woman and child to have a decent standard of living. It is imperative that workers have input into how this technology is used, not just the CEOs of large corporations.
WORKERS ARE FIGHTING BACK
While there is much to be concerned about in today’s economy, there is also some very good news. And here I speak mostly about what I’m seeing in the United States. And that is: today we are seeing workers stand up and fight back in a way we have not seen in decades.
In America, more workers want to join unions; more workers are joining unions—273,000 last year alone; and more workers are going out on strike for decent wages and benefits than we have seen in a very long time. And many of those unions are winning good contracts.
In that regard, let me congratulate the Teamsters, who through their militancy and progressive leadership, have won a substantial pay increase and improvements in working conditions. I hope and believe they will be an example to other unions. I want to also congratulate the UAW for standing up and fighting back in a way that we have not seen in that union for a long time.
We’re seeing unionizing efforts in blue-collar jobs, in white-collar jobs and jobs in-between. We’re seeing it with young people at Starbucks and at Amazon. We’re seeing it with nurses and doctors in hospitals and we’re seeing it on college campuses.
Just this year alone, the United Electrical Workers have organized more than 14,000 graduate students into unions. Well-educated students are waking up to the fact that despite their education and stature at prestigious universities, they are not exempt from exploitation.
We’re seeing writers and actors in the entertainment industry, with enormous courage, go on strike and demand their fair share.
This year we have seen more and more white-collar workers take on their bosses and demand a seat at the table at companies such as Apple, Sega, Activision Blizzard, and Google.
WHAT KIND OF CHANGE?
Workers understand what’s going on.
We are standing up against a ruling class that is driven by an unprecedented level of corporate greed from CEOs who are often dishonest, irresponsible, arrogant, and could care less about the average worker. In fact, they treat many of their employees with contempt.
And, as part of their anti-worker efforts they are engaged in massive and illegal union-busting tactics. In just the last year alone, corporate America spent over $400 million to hire consultants to come into their workplaces and intimidate workers into voting against a union.
So let me conclude by saying this. At a time of unprecedented corporate greed, we need an unprecedented worker response.
In the United States, and around the world, support for the establishment and their institutions is in decline. People want change. And change will come.
The question is: what kind of change will it be? Will it be the kind of change that benefits the wealthy and powerful? A change which moves us toward authoritarianism, which pits one group of people against another and treats women as second class citizens who are not smart enough to make important decisions for themselves? That is one kind of change that could happen.
But there is another kind of change which could happen. And that is a change that would create a fairer, more just and more democratic society, based on love, solidarity and compassion. A change based on the principles of economic, social, and racial justice. The choice is clear. And I know the kind of change that you and I will be fighting for.
Bernie Sanders is an independent U.S. senator from Vermont and a longtime Labor Notes subscriber.