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UAW strike may be pivotal to raise workers' living standards, Sen. Sanders says

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right, we now turn to a man who has spent his career advocating for the rights of workers, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Last week, he showed up at a UAW rally in Detroit, where he called for an end to corporate greed and for the rebuilding of America's middle class. I spoke with the independent senator earlier this week and asked him what's led to this recent resurgence of organized labor.

BERNIE SANDERS: Look, what's going on and what has gone on in this country over the last 50 years - five-zero years - is really extraordinary. Today, the weekly wages of the average American worker, despite an explosion of technology over the last 50 years, is lower, lower than it was 50 years ago. Meanwhile, almost all of the new wealth and income that we have seen over that period has gone to the top 1%. So today, unbelievably, you've got three people in America owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society, and you have 60% of our workers living paycheck to paycheck.

So you've got an economy today that is doing phenomenally well for the people on top, and yet working people can't afford health care. They can't afford child care. They can't afford housing. They can't afford a decent retirement. And people, frankly, are getting angry. And that's what this UAW strike is about. They are standing up and saying, you know what? Enough is enough. You guys on top - CEO of General Motors making 29 million, a guy from Stellantis 25 million, Ford 21 million - profits are soaring. Stock buybacks, dividends - it's got all kinds of money for their stockholders. What about the workers? They're starting off at less than 17 bucks an hour. Their wages over the last 20 years in real inflation dollars have gone down by 30%. So the UAW is fighting back. And I think in a sense, they're fighting back for all of America.

MARTÍNEZ: So on those CEOs, I know the salaries of the Big Three automaker CEOs are hundreds of times larger than their average worker. What do you think, Senator, would be a fair split?

SANDERS: Well, you know, when I was growing up, way back in the '50s and the '60s, you always had the people on top making more money than workers. Nothing new about that. But you know what it was in the '60s, if I'm not mistaken? That split was, like, 20 to 1, 30 to 1. But now you have had in recent years just incredible greed. And while workers' salaries have been stagnant or actually declining, these guys on average in America now make 400 times more. That is outrageous. No one begrudges or is shocked that somebody on top makes more than the worker, but 400 times is obscene.

MARTÍNEZ: So when it comes to that disappearing American middle class, one that has trouble affording the product that they make - in the case of autoworkers, some autoworkers can't afford the product that they're making - what is behind this disappearing American middle class? I mean, is it something that is so far gone by now that it maybe can't be reversed?

SANDERS: No, of course it can be reversed, but it has a lot to do with many factors. No. 1, it's a corrupt political system in which, as a result of Citizens United, billionaires have enormous influence over the political process. And both parties, to a significant degree, do the work of the people on top. That's a problem. And most importantly, I would say it has to do with the unprecedented level of greed, a culture of greed that we now see. I mean, there used to be a sense that, yeah, I'm the boss. I want to make money. That's great. I want to have a big house. That's great. But I have an obligation to treat my workers with respect, not to squeeze them as hard as I can. And what you're seeing today is American people - workers are rising up. They are joining unions in large numbers. They are going out on strike. And they are telling the corporate world that they are sick and tired of this kind of greed which is so prevalent today.

MARTÍNEZ: But how much of it can go back on the worker himself? So I'll give you an example, Senator. My grandfather in Ecuador - he made shoes, but when he came to the United States, he realized that that skill that he had and that he worked on for so long wasn't as valuable here as it was back in Ecuador. So he had to figure out something else to do. And I realize that not everyone can just shift jobs and learn a new skill. But in this changing society and considering how fast things change, how much of it goes back on the worker to say, hey, maybe I got to figure something else out?

SANDERS: Well, it goes without saying that in a radically changing economy - and the economy is going to change a lot faster in the future than it did in your father's time - workers are going to have to learn new skills. But the question is, who is benefiting from this radically changing technology? So what I am arguing is that this new technology could either be very, very bad and displace millions of workers, leaving them out on the streets, or it could be very, very good. Shorten the workweek. Make us a more humane society. Use the wealth that's being created to benefit all of us. That's the question. But I don't argue with you that, of course, the nature of work is going to radically change. People are going to have to learn new skills. That's fine. But I don't want to see workers punished in the process and only the people on top benefit.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Senator, thank you.

SANDERS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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