WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, today led a committee hearing titled, “Standing Up Against Corporate Greed: How Unions are Improving the Lives of Working Families,” which heard testimony from UAW International President Shawn Fain, Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien, AFA-CWA International President Sara Nelson, and other experts.
Sanders’ opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below and can be watched here:
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions will come to order.
The title of this hearing is “Standing Up Against Corporate Greed: How Unions are Improving the Lives of Working Families.”
I am delighted that Shawn Fain, the President of the United Auto Workers; Sean O’Brien, the President of the Teamsters; and Sara Nelson, the President of the Flight Attendants union are here with us today and I look forward to their testimony.
Ranking Member Cassidy has invited Diana Furchtgott-Roth (fur-cot roth) with the Heritage Foundation and Sean Higgins with the Competitive Enterprise Institute and we welcome them here this morning as well.
When we talk about the state of our economy and the working class of America there is a lot to be concerned about.
Today, despite massive increases in worker productivity and an explosion in technology, the average American worker is making about $50 a week less than he or she did 50 years ago after adjusting for inflation while the vast majority of our families need two bread winners to survive. When I was a kid, growing up in a working class family most families needed just one breadwinner to pay the bills. That’s very rare today.
In America today, we have more income and wealth inequality than at any time since the Gilded Age.
Today, three people in our country own more wealth than the bottom half of our society – over 165 million Americans.
Today, while the very richest people in America become much richer, over 60 percent of our people are living paycheck to paycheck and many work for starvation wages and under terrible working conditions.
Today, while millions of ordinary people are struggling to pay the rent, pay for daycare and put food on the table, CEOs are making nearly 350 times as much as their average workers.
Over the last 50 years there has been a massive redistribution of wealth in America. Unfortunately, it has gone in exactly the wrong direction. According to a study by the RAND Corporation, since 1975, over $50 trillion in wealth has been redistributed from the bottom 90 percent to the top 1 percent – primarily because corporations are spending a growing percentage of their profits on stock buybacks and dividends.
And it’s not just income and wealth inequality that we should be concerned about. It is also the maldistribution of economic and political power.
Today we have more concentration of ownership than at any time in the modern history of this country. In sector after sector – a handful of giant corporations control what is produced and how much we pay for it.
Unbelievably, just three Wall Street firms (BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street) control assets of some $20 trillion and are the major shareholders in about 95% of S&P 500 companies.
While there is much to be concerned about in today’s economy, there is also some very good news and that is what brings us to the topic of today’s hearing.
All over this country, we are seeing workers standing up and fighting back against the unprecedented corporate greed taking place in America in a way that we have not seen in decades.
This year alone, over 450,000 workers in America have gone on strike for better wages, benefits and working conditions – up more than 900% compared to just two years ago.
Last year, union membership in America increased by 273,000 – to a total of 14.3 million workers.
Last year, employees in nearly 2,600 worksites in America filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to form a union – up more than 50 percent from two years ago.
According to the latest Gallup poll 67 percent of the American people support labor unions.
In other words, in America today, more workers want to join unions; more workers are joining unions; and more workers are going out on strike to improve their working conditions than we have seen in a very long time – and many of those unions are winning strong contracts for their workers.
And what we are seeing is that these historic union victories are not only improving the lives of their members, they are beginning to improve the lives of non-union workers all over the country.
After the UAW negotiated a strong contract for its union workers, Honda announced that it would be increasing the wages of their non-union workers in the US by 11 percent, Toyota announced that their US workers will receive a 9-10 percent raise; and Hyundai announced that it will be increasing wages for their US workers by 25% by the year 2028.
After the Teamsters won a strong contract to increase wages and benefits for union workers at UPS, Amazon increased wages for its non-union warehouse and delivery drivers – even as it continued to spend millions of dollars to prevent its workers from forming a union.
And let’s be clear.
We’re not just seeing unionizing efforts in blue collar jobs, we’re seeing it in white collar jobs and on college campuses.
Just this year alone, the United Electrical workers have organized more than 20,000 graduate students to join 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 win better wages, benefits and working conditions.
This year we have seen more and more white collar workers take on corporate greed and demand a seat at the table at companies such as Apple, Sega (Say-Ga), Activision Blizzard, and Google.
Nurses are going on strike in record numbers not so much to increase their wages and benefits, but primarily to improve the lives and the well-being of their patients through safer staffing levels at large hospitals.
Even young doctors who, in some cases, are working 80 hours a week at major medical facilities have voted to form a union so that they can provide better medical care to the people they treat.
That is the good news. The bad news is that far too many corporations are doing everything that they can to intimidate, coerce, threaten and prevent workers from exercising their constitutional right to form a union and negotiate a fair contract.
Why is that?
Well, it’s not that complicated. What corporate America understands is that union workers earn nearly 20% more, on average, than non-union workers.
Corporate America understands that 64% of union workers have a defined benefit pension plan that guarantees an income in retirement compared to just 11% of non-union workers.
Corporate America understands that union workers are half as likely to be victims of health and safety violations compared to non-union workers.
And that is why major corporations all over this country are firing workers for the “crime” of supporting a union organizing campaign.
That is why major corporations like Starbucks, Amazon and other have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on illegal union busting campaigns and anti-union law firms.
That is why over half of all employers in America threaten to close or relocate their businesses if workers elect to form a union.
That is why when workers become interested in forming a union, they almost always will be forced to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; and their supervisors will almost always be forced to attend training sessions on how to attack unions.
And even when workers overcome all of these incredible obstacles and win union elections, over half of workers who vote to form a union don’t have a union contract a year later.
We have a responsibility to turn that around.
This summer, the HELP Committee passed the PRO Act to make it easier for workers to form unions and win first contracts. We passed the Healthy Families Act to guarantee every worker in America up to 7 paid sick days. And we passed the Paycheck Fairness Act to guarantee equal pay for equal work.
This is the first year since 1997 that the HELP Committee has passed labor legislation.
In my view, these bills need to be signed into law as soon as possible.
If we are going to rebuild the disappearing middle class in America we have got to make it easier for workers to form unions and negotiate strong contracts.