If the US is “going to save the middle class” then Democrats and Republicans must come together to back the newly resurgent labor movement, Bernie Sanders told the Guardian this week ahead of a Senate hearing on the benefits of unions.
Sanders is holding a Senate health, education, labor and pensions committee hearing on Tuesday with US labor leaders on the state of the US labor movement and efforts to rein in corporate greed in America.
The hearing comes after a wave of successful strike actions by workers and as Congress once again considers legislation that would empower union organizing.
“We have got to expand union organizing in this country if we’re going to save the middle class,” said Sanders. “The American people are sick and tired of corporate greed, of record-breaking profits, outrageous compensation packages for CEOs while workers in many cases are earning starvation wages. That dynamic has got to change. I think we’ve seen real, real progress in the last year,” said Sanders.
Two labor leaders who recently spearheaded successful strike actions – the United Auto Workers (UAW) president, Shawn Fain, and the Teamsters president, Sean O’Brien – will be in attendance along with Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-Communication Workers of America (AFA-CWA).
At the hearing, entitled, “Standing Up Against Corporate Greed: How Unions are Improving the Lives of Working Families,” the union leaders will discuss the role of labor unions in fighting corporate greed, recent historic union contract gains and the challenges and obstacles that continue to stymie workers’ right to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining.
Sanders, chair of the Senate help committee, sees this as a hopeful time for workers, citing record public support for unions. This revitalization should be seen in the context of growing wealth inequality, said Sanders, and a middle and working class that has been hollowed out over the past few decades in America.
“Today, the weekly wage for the average American worker, despite the huge increase in technology and worker productivity, is actually lower than it was 50 years ago, back in 1973. Unbelievable. So what we have seen for 50 years is workers and the middle class falling deeper and deeper into economic despair. People are working incredible hours, in many cases, they’re going nowhere in a hurry,” said Sanders.
Sanders pointed to data on the widening economic divide in the US: 60% of American workers live paycheck to paycheck, millions of Americans, including around half of all Americans between the ages of 55 to 66 years old, have no retirement savings. Meanwhile, workers continue to struggle with unaffordable healthcare and childcare.
“During all this time, the very richest people in America are becoming richer, we have more income and wealth inequality than we’ve ever had in the history of this country. You’re seeing CEOs now making almost 400 times more than that of workers,” added Sanders.
Unions can use collective bargaining to negotiate decent wages and benefits, and collective action such as strikes to pressure powerful corporations to start to counter these harrowing economic trends through contract gains, said Sanders.
The hearing comes in the wake of successful strikes by the UAW led to auto workers reaching agreements with the big three US automakers, Ford, Stellantis and General Motors. Workers won 25% wage gains over the life of the new contracts and reclaimed concessions made in previous contracts such as cost of living adjustments and the ending lower-tier wage scales. The contract wins at GM were more than twice the value of what the company had offered before the strikes, 50% more than what Ford offered before the strikes, and 103% more than what Stellantis had offered before the strikes.
Following the contract agreements, Hyundai, Honda and Toyota, announced wage increases for non-union auto workers in the US. Fain, the UAW president, plans to ramp up union organizing efforts at non-union automakers in the US. The wage increases have been hailed as a testament to the ripple effects – where wins for unionized workers spread to other workers and their communities.
The Teamsters also celebrated a historic contract won at UPS this past summer after ramping up threats for what would have been one of the largest strikes in US modern history. Hollywood’s writers and actors also used their unions to strike and force media companies to renegotiate better terms as the industry faces huge technological changes.
But despite these big wins and upticks in organizing, the US labor movement is still facing significant obstacles from aggressive opposition from corporations like Amazon and Starbucks to union organizing and outdated and broken labor law.
Joe Biden has called himself the “most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” and has backed legislation that Sanders and others hope will further boost the labor movement. But that legislation has stalled in a divided Congress.
The Pro Act (Protect the Right to Organize Act) first introduced in 2021 is a comprehensive labor law reform bill that Sanders said he would like to see passed into law to help workers whose organizing efforts are currently behind, stymied by employers under current labor laws.
“What we have got to do in Congress is pass legislation like the Pro Act which allows workers to exercise their constitutional right to form a union,” Sanders said, noting the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension passed the bill earlier this year in an 11-10 vote along partisan lines.
“I want to see that bill on the floor and I want to see it pass, but I want Republicans who are going to vote against it to explain to American workers why they don’t have a right to organize and form a union without having to take on illegal and outrageous corporate opposition,” said Sanders.
Sanders said his office has been lending support to strikes and organizing efforts around the US, such as the Starbucks hearing where Howard Schultz testified earlier this year and most recently citing a nurses strike at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Nurses on strike participated in a hearing last month led by Sanders on the staffing crisis plaguing hospitals around the US.
“We will use all the tools that we have to work with organized labor, to a. increase the number of workers who are in unions, and b. support workers who are on strike, or negotiating for decent wages,” concluded Sanders. “I would hope that we will continue to see widespread support for union organizing, that we will see more workers organize, that we will see workers fight for decent wages and benefits.”