Remarks at the Nevada State AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention in Las Vegas
Brothers and sisters, thank you for inviting me to be with you today, and I want to thank all of the 12.5 million members of the AFL-CIO for working hard each and every day to improve the lives of all of the American people.
During my 24 years in Congress, I have been proud to stand side by side with the AFL-CIO fighting to increase the minimum wage; fighting to guarantee health care to every man, woman and child as a right of citizenship; fighting to make it easier for workers to join unions; fighting to create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure; fighting for pay equity for women workers; fighting for paid family and medical leave; fighting to expand, not cut Social Security; and fighting against disastrous trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, and Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China that have destroyed millions of decent-paying jobs in America.
Since the formation of our nation over 230 years ago, the trade union movement has always led the fight to improve the quality of life for all Americans, and that is what the AFL-CIO is all about.
When only the wealthy were allowed to vote, the trade union movement was successful in demanding universal suffrage and a more democratic society. When tiny children were forced to work in the factories and fields, it was the trade union movement who put an end to abusive child labor and who fought for quality public education. When bosses refused to negotiate with their workers and fired them for standing up for their rights, the trade union movement pushed Congress into passing legislation which guaranteed all people the right to organize unions and collectively bargain for better wages and benefits.
The list goes on. Social Security, the minimum wage, Medicare and Medicaid, affordable housing — are just a few of the benefits that workers have won over the years thanks in large part to the trade union movement.
None of those historic accomplishments would have been achieved without the work of the trade union movement. But today, all of those accomplishments are under attack by some of the wealthiest people and largest corporations in this country.
Brothers and sisters, the fact of the matter is that there is a war going on in this country today. And, I'm not talking about the misguided and unnecessary war we waged in Iraq.
I'm not talking about the war so many of my Republican colleagues seem hell bent to wage with Iran.
I'm talking about the 40-year war against the American middle class, the American standard of living, and the American dream of owning a home, sending kids to college, and having a secure retirement.
What business leaders are telling us today is that if workers don't accept massive cuts in salary with no benefits, they'll move to China. They'll move to Mexico. And, the American worker can join the increasing ranks of the poor. In other words, what they are saying is to hell with the American middle class; to hell with the American dream. CEOs are rewarding themselves with outrageous compensation packages while they are squeezing everything they can out of the American worker. That is the war that is being waged against the middle class and that is what we have got to fight against!
Brothers and sisters, you understand why the American people are angry because you have witnessed the decline of the middle class with your own eyes. You have seen companies receiving tax breaks for shutting down factories in this country and moving overseas. You have seen CEOs earn 300 times what their average workers make. You have seen workers fired for standing up for their rights to collectively bargain. You have seen the transformation of our country away from a General Motors economy of good wages and good benefits to a Walmart economy of starvation wages and no benefits. And, you are saying very loudly and very clearly that enough is enough!
There is something profoundly wrong when the United States of America has more wealth and income inequality since 1928. There is something profoundly wrong when almost all of the new income gains generated since the Wall Street crash is flowing to the top one percent.
There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.
You understand better than anyone else that the real unemployment is not 5.3%. If you include people who have given up looking for work and people who are working part-time when they want to work full-time the real unemployment rate is 10.4 percent.
And, here is something that is almost never discussed in the mainstream media. Youth unemployment is off the charts.
Today, the average real unemployment rate of young high school graduates is 33.8 percent for white Americans, 36.1 percent for Hispanic Americans, and 51.3 percent for African-Americans.
It is a national disgrace that real median family income has gone down by nearly $5,000 since 1999 and is lower today than it was 26 years ago.
It is unacceptable that the typical male worker made $783 less last year than he did 42 years ago.
It is unacceptable that the typical female worker made $1,337 less last year than she did in 2007.
It is an international embarrassment that nearly 20 percent of kids in America are living in poverty and we have the highest childhood poverty rate of any major developed country on earth.
Today, over half of American workers have less than $10,000 in savings and have no idea how they will be able to retire with any shred of dignity.
Meanwhile, while the middle class is disappearing and 45 million Americans are living in poverty, the wealthiest people in this country are doing phenomenally well and have never had it so good.
Over the last two years, the wealthiest 15 people in this country — including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, the owners of Walmart, the Koch brothers, and Sheldon Adelson — have seen an increase in their wealth of $170 billion.
Today, one family, the Walton family of Walmart owns more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans!
That is the economic reality of today, and that is what we are fighting against.
Brothers and sisters, fighting for the rights of working people is not just another issue for me. It's what I am all about.
In my view, the trade union movement is the last line of defense against the billionaire class and the moneyed interests who are out to destroy virtually every major piece of legislation passed in the last 80 years to protect the working people of this country.
Let's be clear about what we are up against.
Today, as a result of the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the Koch brothers, the second wealthiest family in America, is prepared to spend some $900 million this election cycle — more than either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party is likely to spend.
Why? What do the Koch brothers want? Let me tell you.
The Koch brothers and their billionaire allies don't just want to cut Social Security, they want to eliminate Social Security; they don't want to just cut Medicare, they want to eliminate Medicare; they don't just want to cut healthcare at the VA, they want to eliminate the Veterans Administration; they don't want to just cut the Postal Service, they want to eliminate it; they're not only opposed to increasing the minimum wage, they don't believe in the concept of the minimum wage; they don't want to just cut the estate tax, they want to abolish it.
In other words, the Koch brothers and the billionaire class want it all. They want to give Americans the "freedom" to live in poverty working for $3 or $4 an hour without healthcare, without childcare, without a pension, without the ability to send their kids to college, and without any hope that their children will have a higher standard of living than they do.
And they understand that the major obstacle standing in the way of their extreme, right wing agenda is the trade union movement.
That's why they have fought so hard to eliminate unions in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and all over this country by ending collective bargaining rights.
And, that's why I believe that we need to create a political revolution in this country of millions of workers, veterans, the elderly, the disabled, people of color standing together and telling the billionaire class that enough is enough! Your greed is destroying this country. You cannot have it all! You cannot continue to get tax breaks while children in this country are going hungry.
This country belongs to all of us, not just to a handful of millionaires and billionaires.
In my view, the American people are sick and tired of establishment politicians and the establishment media telling them that they need to be realistic; that they have got to lower their expectations; that we cannot afford to expand Social Security; that we cannot raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour; that we cannot pass a major jobs program to put millions of Americans to work; that we cannot guarantee healthcare to all Americans; that it is just too impossible to end institutional racism in this country; and that the only option in the general election must be between two candidates who will support a continuation of disastrous trade policies that are destroying the middle class in this country.
In my view, we have got to send a very loud and a very clear message to the establishment: You are wrong, you are dead wrong!
On every one of these issues, the American people are on our side. Maybe, just maybe, it's time that the American people truly had a candidate who will stand up for their interests, not just for CEOs and billionaires on Wall Street. And, that's why I am running for president of the United States of America.
Brothers and Sisters, in my view, every candidate running for president has got to answer the following questions:
Why is it that, despite all of the incredible gains we have made in productivity and all of the advancements that we have been made in technology, millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages while a handful of billionaires do unbelievably well?
Why does it happen that most of the new jobs being created today in America are part-time, low wage jobs?
How did it happen that since 2001, over 60,000 factories have shut down in America and millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared?
How does it happen that new manufacturing jobs created in this country pay in some cases half of what manufacturing jobs used to pay?
Why are we in a race to the bottom with low wage countries like China, Mexico, and India?
In my view, there are two fundamental reasons for this.
The first has to do with our disastrous unfettered free trade policy — which literally tells corporate America — throw American workers out on the street, move to China, move to Mexico, move to Vietnam where you can pay workers pennies an hour; where you don't have to worry about the environment; where you don't need to worry about the health and safety of workers; where you don't need to have one iota of respect for human rights.
During my tenure in Congress I am proud to tell you that I have voted against and helped lead the opposition to every major free trade agreement that has been passed in recent years.
And, let me be clear in telling you that I will continue to lead the opposition against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest trade agreement in the history of our country.
Brothers and sisters, the reality is that NAFTA has failed, CAFTA has failed, our membership in the World Trade Organization has failed, and perhaps, above all, Permanent Normal Trade relations with China has failed.
In my view, the time is now, and it is long overdue, for the United States Congress to stand up to corporate America, to stand up to the President of the United States, to stand up to the editorial writers all over this country who year after year after year have told us how wonderful unfettered free trade is, how many new jobs would be created.
The results are in. They are wrong. Unfettered free trade has been a disaster for working Americans. It has been a disaster for the middle class. And, it is high time we understood that. It is high time we ended our disastrous trade policies and began to negotiate trade policies that work not just for corporate America, not just for CEOs who make huge compensation packages, but trade policies that are fair for the working people of this country. And, that's exactly what I intend to do as president.
The second fundamental reason for the decline in the middle class is that the rights of workers to join together and bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions have been severely undermined.
Today, if an employee is engaged in a union organizing campaign, that employee has a one in five chance of getting fired.
Today, half of all employers threaten to close or re-locate their business if workers elect to form a union.
Today, when workers become interested in forming a union, 92 percent of private-sector employers force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; 80 percent require supervisors to attend training sessions on how to attack unions; 78 percent require that supervisors deliver anti-union messages to workers they oversee; and 75% hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns.
According to Human Rights Watch: "Freedom of association is a right under severe, often buckling pressure when workers in the United States try to exercise it."
That is unacceptable!
And, even when workers are faced with all of these enormous obstacles — even when these workers win union elections, more than one-third of the victories do not result in a first contract for workers.
Today, corporate executives are routinely negotiating obscenely high compensation packages for themselves, but they continue to deny their own employees the ability to bargain for a better life. That is wrong.
It is time to turn this around.
It is time to make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land!
If a majority of workers in a bargaining unit sign valid authorization cards stating that they want a union as their bargaining representative, they must have the right to a union. Period!
One of the very first bills that I introduced when I was elected to Congress in 1991 was a card check bill.
And, I will tell you that if I am elected President, making it easier for workers to form a union will be one of the very first things that I do in the White House.
Today, tens of millions of workers would join a union right now if they had the chance. Yet, only 11 percent of the workforce has a union. That is unacceptable and that has got to change!
Brothers and Sisters, if we are serious about strengthening America's middle class, we have got to restore workers' rights to bargain for better wages, benefits, and safer working conditions.
Why do we need to do that?
Because we know that union workers earn 30 percent more money, on average, than non-union workers. If you want to make more money to support your family, you need a union!
We know that 79 percent of union workers have a defined benefit pension plan that guarantees income in retirement, while only 16 percent of non-union workers do. If you want to have a secure retirement, you need a union!
We know that 83 percent of union workers have paid sick leave, while only 62 percent of non-union workers do. If you want to make sure that you can take time off from work when you or your child is sick, you need a union! And, if I am elected as the next president, that's exactly what I will fight to do.
And, that's not all.
We have got to acknowledge that millions of Americans are now working for totally inadequate wages. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised. The minimum wage must become a living wage — which means raising it to $15 an hour over the next few years.
The benchmark of full time work in America should be simple and concrete — that no full-time worker should live in poverty.
And a living wage should not only be fair, it should be equitable. That is why we must establish pay equity for women workers by law. It's unconscionable that women earn 78 cents on the dollar compared to men.
Further, the United States must end the international embarrassment of being the only major country on earth, the only one, which does not guarantee workers paid medical and family leave, paid sick time and paid vacation time. Last place is no place for America.
That is why I will fight for 12 weeks of paid family leave, at least 10 days of paid vacation time and seven days of paid sick time.
My Republican colleagues talk a lot about "family values." Well, let me be very clear. It is not a family value to force the mother of a newborn baby to go back to work a few days after she gives birth, because she doesn't have the money to stay home and bond with her baby. That is not a family value. That is an insult to everything that I know about what family is about.
Today, as a result of the collapse of our middle class and declining wages, the American people are working longer hours than the people of any other country — 54 hours a year more than Japanese workers, 119 more hours per year than British workers, 299 hours more than French workers, and 425 hours more than German workers.
Over 100 ago, workers in this country marched in protest for a 40 hour work week. Well, one hundred years later we still have not achieved that. Incredibly, today, 85% of working men and 66% of working women work more than 40 hours a week. And do you know what? Many workers in this country get no or very little paid vacation time. That has got to end.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs
If we are serious about reversing the decline of the middle class we need a major federal jobs program that puts millions of Americans back to work at decent paying jobs. At a time when our roads, bridges, water systems, rail and airports are decaying, the most effective way to rapidly create meaningful jobs is to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. That's why I've introduced legislation that would invest $1 trillion over 5 years to modernize our country's physical infrastructure. This legislation would create and maintain at least 13 million good-paying jobs, while making our country more productive, efficient and safe. And I commit to you that as President, I will lead that legislation into law.
Reforming Wall Street
It is time to break up the largest financial institutions in the country. Wall Street cannot continue to be an island unto itself, gambling trillions in risky financial instruments while expecting the public to bail it out. We need a banking system that is part of creating a productive economy, not a handful of huge banks on Wall Street that engage in reckless and illegal activities. If a bank is too big to fail it is too big to exist.
Citizens United and Campaign Finance Reform
Let me be as blunt as I can while telling you what you already know. As a result of the disastrous Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, the American political system has been totally corrupted, and the foundations of American democracy are being undermined. What the Supreme Court essentially said was that it was not good enough for the billionaire class to own much of our economy. They could now own the U.S. government as well. And that is precisely what they are trying to do.
If we are serious about creating jobs, about climate change and the needs of our children, our veterans and the elderly, we must be deadly serious about campaign finance reform. That is why I will not nominate any justice to the Supreme Court who has not made it clear that he or she will move to overturn that disastrous decision which is undermining our democracy. Long term, we need to go further and establish public funding of elections, so that the dark money of American politics is stopped before democracy is bought and paid for by a handful of billionaires and corporations.
American democracy is not about corporations and billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections. It is not about Wall Street and big oil or the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson spending billions of dollars to elect candidates who will make the rich richer and everyone else poorer.
This is not democracy. This is oligarchy. The defining principle of American democracy is one person, one vote — with every citizen having an equal say — and no voter suppression. And that's the kind of American political system we have to fight for.
College For All
And when we talk about education, let me be very clear. In a highly competitive global economy, we need the best-educated workforce we can create. It is insane and counter-productive to the best interests of our country and its future, that hundreds of thousands of bright young people can not afford to go to college, and that millions of others leave school with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades. That shortsighted path to the future must end. As President, I will fight to make tuition in public colleges and universities free, as well as substantially lower interest rates on student loans. Every person, young and old in America should be given the tools to realize their full god given potential.
Health Care for All
The United States remains the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care for all as a right. Despite the gains of the Affordable Care Act, 35 million Americans continue to lack health insurance and many more are under-insured. Yet, we continue paying far more per capita for health care than any other nation. The United States must join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee health care to all as a right by moving toward a Medicare-for-All single-payer system.
Protecting Our Most Vulnerable
At a time when millions of Americans are struggling to keep their heads above water economically, at a time when senior poverty is increasing, at a time when millions of kids are living in dire poverty my Republican colleagues are trying to make a terrible situation even worse. If you can believe it, the Republican budget throws 27 million Americans off health insurance, makes drastic cuts in Medicare, throws millions of low income Americans, including pregnant women off nutrition programs, and makes it harder for working-class families to afford college or put their kids into Head Start. And then, to add insult to injury, they provide huge tax breaks for the very, very wealthiest families in this country while they raise taxes on working families.
Well, let me tell my Republican colleagues that I respectfully disagree with their approach. Instead of cutting Social Security, we need to expand Social Security benefits. Instead of cutting head start and childcare, we need to move to a universal pre-k system for all the children of this country. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded us: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little." And that is a test that we as a nation must once again meet and master.
Racial Justice and Economic Opportunity
The struggle for equality continues today in America, and the front line of that struggle is the inner cities throughout our nation. From Ferguson to Baltimore and across the nation, too many African Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals.
If current trends continue, 1 in 4 black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetime. This is an unspeakable tragedy. But this crisis of over incarceration is not just a destruction of human life. It is also costly to the taxpayers who pay almost $70 Billion a year for prisons. It makes a lot more sense to me to be investing in jobs and education rather than in jails and incarceration. This issue is a crisis in American society. It is an international disgrace. That is why I have introduced legislation to spend $5.5 billion dollars to fund job-training programs for inner city youth. As a former Mayor I understand the importance of police community relations, and the need today across America to improve the climate and dialogue in those relations. Instead of building more and more prisons, we need to be building more and more meaningful lives where young people can have a future, not be stuck in a dead end with no hope or opportunity.
Today millions of decent, hardworking people live in America with no hope of gaining the status to live and work here legally. Many were brought here in their youth, and other came to find a life free of fear, oppression, war or deprivation. We need a rational immigration process, not the Republican alternatives of self- deportation or some other draconian non-solution. I believe in a path to citizenship, and I agree with President Obama's plans to do through executive action what the Congress reuses to do through legislation. We need to solve problems like immigration in American, not use these issues to promote division and hostility.
Brothers and sisters, I believe we can restore the promise of America to every person who wants to work hard to build a future for themselves and their family.
We can live in a country:
Where every citizen has health care as a right, not a privilege;
Where every parent can have quality and affordable childcare and where all of our qualified young people, regardless of income, can go to college;
Where every senior can live in dignity and security, and not be forced to choose between their medicine and their food;
Where every veteran who defends this nation gets the quality health care and benefits they have earned and receives the respect they deserve;
Where the inner cities of our nation become safer, and where people who want to succeed are treated fairly and given a helping hand;
Where every person who dreams of becoming a citizen has a rationale path forward, not just a dark corner to hide in;
Where everyone, no matter their race, their religion, their disability or their sexual orientation realizes the full promise of equality that is our birthright as Americans.
That is the nation we can build together, and I look forward to working with all of you to build a future that works for all of us, and not just the few on top.
NOTE: As prepared for delivery.
Bernie Sanders, Remarks at the Nevada State AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention in Las Vegas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/314567