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Bernie Sanders: The Boss’s Worst Nightmare

Since 2018, Bernie has publicly taken on the CEOs of Amazon, Walmart, Delta, McDonald’s, and more — and he shows no sign of relenting. His willingness to pick fights with ultrarich executives paying poverty wages sets him apart from other Democratic candidates.

Bernie Sanders speaks to low-wage federal contract workers during a protest where the workers demanded presidential action to win an increase to $15 an hour wage December 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee / Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has a flair for naming and shaming the rich and powerful. Last month, when he faced criticism for his democratic socialist politics from Jamie Dimon, he responded on social media: “Jamie Dimon is the billionaire CEO of a Wall Street bank that was fined $13 billion for mortgage fraud, admitted to wrongly foreclosing on military officials, paid a settlement for bribing foreign officials and received a $416 billion taxpayer bailout from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department.” He added sarcastically, “Jamie. Thanks so much for your advice.”

This week, Sanders updated his website with a page dedicated to anti-endorsements. “I am proud to announce the modern-day oligarchs who oppose our movement,” it reads, boasting words of hatred from executives of Home Depot, Verizon, Goldman Sachs, General Electric and more. The page is framed by a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.”

This is nothing new for Sanders. He’s been gung ho to publicly confront the wealthy for decades. But his strategy has ramped up considerably since early 2018. And he doesn’t just fire back when faced with personal criticism — for over a year, Sanders has been using his enormous platform to criticize powerful companies and their CEOs on behalf of the workers whose rights they trample underfoot, and to extract concessions from bosses on the threat of public embarrassment and reputational devastation. From Amazon to Walmart to Disney to McDonald’s, Sanders doesn’t hold back.

This willingness to go after elites, not just abstractly but concretely, is what sets Sanders apart from the rest of the Democratic Party primary field, and what makes him the candidate best suited to represent the interests of working people in office.

How to Attack Bosses and Alienate Rich People

A few recent examples of Sanders’s public antagonisms of the richest people in the country: in July 2018, Sanders held a livestreamed town hall titled “CEOs vs. Workers.” He invited to the stage five low-wage workers — one each from Amazon, American Airlines, Disney, McDonald’s, and Walmart — and their bosses. The workers showed. The bosses didn’t. The visual was stunning: Sanders stood at a podium in the center, workers to his left, empty chairs designated for CEOs to his right.

“I guess they didn’t show up,” Sanders said. “We made a sincere effort, because I think it would’ve been an extraordinary discussion for them to defend the kind of compensation they get in contrast to the people who work for them.” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, earned more than five hundred times the median Amazon worker’s salary during the length of the broadcast.

Sanders ceded most of his time during the town hall to the workers themselves, who told stories of insecurity, harassment, and degradation at the hands of their employers.

“People in a sense are disposable,” Sanders said in response to one testimony. “We work somebody to the point of no return, and we get rid of them and get somebody else in. It’s not a culture where people are respected, are nourished. We have to ask ourselves if that’s the kind of economic culture we are comfortable with. And I think most Americans are not.”

This was Sanders at his best: dramatizing the conflict between classes and pointing a finger at the capitalists whose compulsion to maximize profit harms millions of people they don’t know and don’t care to.

This town hall was only the beginning of Sanders’s public antagonism of Amazon, Walmart, Disney, McDonald’s, and other major American corporations. In June 2018, Sanders took the stage at a rally attended by hundreds of Disneyland workers in Anaheim, California.

“I want to hear the moral defense of a company that makes $9 billion in profits, $400 million for their CEOs and have a thirty-year worker going hungry,” he said. “Tell me how that is right.”

He added, “The struggle that you are waging here in Anaheim is not just for you. It is a struggle for millions of workers all across this country who are sick and tired of working longer hours for lower wages.”

The union representing the workers was at that point in a contract negotiation with Disney. Sanders chose to use his massive platform to help them win their contract fight. Later that month he wrote an op-ed for the Guardian in which he publicized the workers’ testimonies he had heard in Anaheim:

What these workers are doing, standing up against the greed of one of the most powerful and profitable corporations in America, takes an enormous amount of courage. If they are able to win a livable wage with good benefits from Disney, it will be a shot heard around the world. It will give other low-wage workers at profitable corporations throughout the country the strength they need to demand a living wage with good benefits.

The next month, Disney agreed to pay its unionized workers at Disneyland a minimum of $15 an hour. In August, it followed suit at Disney World in Florida.

Sanders doesn’t deserve full credit for these raises, of course. He joined an already existing battle by union workers against Disney. But it’s that focus on amplifying workers’ struggles, whether within unions or as part of campaigns like the Fight for $15 fast food strikes or Walmart worker organizing, that can prove a turning point in existing fights — and has the potential to spark new energy from workers to fight.

After the announced raises at Disney, Bernie didn’t let up. Later in August, he blasted the company for securing large tax breaks for itself while many of its workers were still underpaid. Sanders also generalized the fight by introducing legislation in November to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — a change that would affect 40 million people, or 25 percent of the workforce.

And in 2019, Sanders publicly called on Disney to use the profits from its blockbuster film Avengers: Endgame, which netted $1.2 billion at the box office, to pay workers better. “What would be truly heroic is if Disney used its profits from ‘Avengers’ to pay all of its workers a middle class wage, instead of paying its CEO Bob Iger $65.6 million — over 1,400 times as much as the average worker at Disney makes,” he tweeted.

Ratcheting Up, Not Backing Off

For those concerned that Sanders would stop fighting after achieving his current demands, his willingness to continue antagonizing Disney over its pay disparities even after the initial victory is a sign that he has escalating class struggle in mind.

Disney was one among many targets. Sanders has been on the warpath against large corporations and their CEOs for over a year. In April 2018, Sanders publicly criticized Amazon, saying, “You know what Amazon paid in federal income taxes last year? Zero.” This was the first shot in what would become a war between Sanders and Amazon. In May, he posted a video online taking aim at the company, stating that “Bezos makes more in ten seconds than the median Amazon employee makes in a year: $28,466.”

In reply, the company, which rarely issues public comments in response to controversy, called Sanders’ attacks “inaccurate and misleading” and invited Sanders to tour one of its warehouses. Sanders accepted the invitation, but added publicly:

I remain deeply concerned about Amazon, an enormously profitable corporation, paying workers wages that are so low that they are forced to depend on federal programs like Medicaid, food stamps and public housing for survival. At a time of exploding profits, I would hope that Amazon would pay everyone who works in your fulfillment centers a living wage.

Sanders continued to speak out against Bezos and Amazon throughout summer 2018, including his CEOs vs. Workers town hall in July 2018, where he screened a video about Bezos’s personal wealth (Bezos is the richest man in the world). In August, Sanders spoke out against Amazon again and circulated a petition among his supporters calling for Amazon to increase pay and improve working conditions.

Under intense public scrutiny due to Sanders’s agitation, Amazon quietly began offering workers $50 gift cards to post on social media about how much they enjoyed working in its warehouses. Sanders found out about the scheme and publicly embarrassed Amazon by posting a video lambasting the company’s attempts at spin. He ended the video by calling on Amazon to pay its warehouse workers $15 an hour.

And then, in September 2018, Sanders submitted a piece of legislation to the Senate that would tax large companies for every dollar spent on social services used by their low-wage workers. Workers rely on those programs to make ends meet in the absence of pay high enough to cover their living costs, and the public foots the bill, when it should be the companies instead. Sanders provocatively called the bill the Stop BEZOS Act. Bezos’s name was transformed into an acronym signifying “Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies.”

The Stop BEZOS Act went nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate, but the purpose of the bill was twofold: to model legislation that ought to pass under more favorable political conditions, and to pressure Bezos into caving. Sanders was successful. In November, Amazon announced that its warehouse workers would be paid a minimum of $15 an hour. “We listened to our critics,” Bezos said.

But as with Disney, Sanders hasn’t backed off. He quickly turned his attention from pay to working conditions, saying that we “must recognize that workers’ rights don’t stop at the minimum wage.” In early presidential campaign speeches, Sanders frequently told crowds of thousands that Amazon paid nothing in federal income taxes, a revelation met with jeers.

In March 2019, Sanders called on Amazon to improve working conditions and allow staff to unionize. In June 2019, he criticized Amazon for offering a high-interest consumer credit card — a practice Sanders has said he would outlaw — and on another occasion accused Amazon of contributing to the homelessness crisis in Seattle when it used its muscle to kill an important tax to build affordable housing in the city.

Taking on Walmart

Sanders followed up his Stop BEZOS Act with a Stop Walmart Act in November 2018 that, according to CNN, would “prevent large companies from buying back stock unless they pay all employees at least $15 an hour, allow workers to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave and limit CEO compensation to no more than 150 times the median pay of all staffers.” He joined the years-long campaigns against Walmart’s poverty wages, calling the company’s greed “grotesque” and “absurd.”

Sanders posted to social media a video of himself in 1995 railing against Walmart, saying, “People should know that the reason that the rich get richer, that our jobs are going to Mexico, that corporations are downsizing, is that the major corporations, Walmart among many others, have tremendous sway over the political process.”

In 2018, his tune hadn’t changed. He said, “It’s as true today as it was in 1995: We have a rigged economy that allows corporations like Walmart to have an outsized influence on American politics. It’s time to stand up and demand a country and economy that works for all of us, not just a few.”

(Sanders has been saying the same things for decades. In 2019 he posted to social media, “My skeptics often accuse me of being boring, of hammering the same themes. They’re probably right. It’s never made sense to me that a few people have incredible wealth and power while most have none. Should we ever achieve justice, I promise I’ll write some new speeches.”)

He began a social media crusade against Walmart that extended into the next year. In February 2019, Walmart changed their paid sick leave policy. Sanders responded, “Walmart’s decision to provide 48 hours of paid sick leave to some employees is a small step forward, but not nearly good enough. This is not a poor company. Walmart can and must pay all of its workers at least $15 an hour with good benefits.”

He also used the Amazon victory as leverage over Walmart, saying, “It’s been almost six months since Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15. Why hasn’t Walmart, owned by the richest family in America, also started paying all their employees a living wage of $15 an hour?”

In June 2019, Sanders was invited by Walmart workers to crash the company’s annual stockholder convention. On the convention grounds in Bentonville, Arkansas, Peter Frampton played a concert to Walmart shareholders; off campus, Sanders spoke to Walmart workers:

This company owned by the wealthiest family in America can pay $15 an hour. Today we are here to fight for the dignity of Walmart employees, to make sure that every employee at Walmart has at least a living wage. I want to thank all of you for standing together. The entire country is watching. The country is so tired of this massive level of income and wealth inequality, where the people on top make billions and billions and working people struggle.

Sanders purchased a single share of Walmart stock in 1994 specifically so he could, in his words, “keep an eye on the company.” This made him a Walmart shareholder, which meant he was able to attend the convention and submit a shareholder resolution. On the floor of the convention, he said:

The issue that we are dealing with today is pretty simple. Walmart is the largest private employer in America and is owned by the Walton family, the wealthiest family in the United States, worth approximately $175 billion. And yet despite the incredible wealth of its owner, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages, wages that are so low that many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and public housing in order to survive. Frankly, the American people are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in this country.

At the shareholder convention, Sanders chose to submit a proposal as a proxy for a Walmart employee who was not allowed into the convention. It was a poetic metaphor for Bernie Sanders’s role in American politics — on the inside, largely alone, representing those outside.

His proposal would have allowed workers to sit on Walmart’s board, which he said in an interview is “enormously important because at the end of the day, working people have got to have some control over how they spend at least eight hours a day.” The proposal was killed, but Sanders turned his social media accounts over to Walmart workers for the duration of the weekend, publicizing their struggle. He has since published numerous videos of Walmart workers speaking directly into the camera about their daily struggles, videos that reach an audience of millions. (This may be part of the reason why Walmart is the number-one employer of donors to Sanders’s campaign.)

In June 2019, nineteen of the Democratic Party presidential primary candidates convened at the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Celebration, a dinner that’s customary for candidates to attend. Sanders distinguished himself by arriving in style: he marched side by side with striking McDonald’s workers in Cedar Rapids all the way to the convention center, where the workers held a Fight for $15 protest outside. The action was coordinated with others across the United States. Sanders contacted his supporters throughout the nation and encouraged them to turn out in support of McDonald’s workers for higher pay and better working conditions.

Using Campaign Infrastructure to Organize

Since he began his 2020 presidential campaign, Sanders has done something completely unprecedented in the history of American presidential politics: he has used his campaign data infrastructure to bolster rallies and strike picket lines, to turn out in support of workers at McDonald’s, Amazon, Wabtec, Delta Airlines, Nissan, Disney, General Motors, the University of California, the University of Chicago, teachers in Los Angeles and West Virginia, mental health workers in California, and more. His communications have often included specific information about where and when to meet.

He has also used his email lists to warn immigrants about impending raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These emails list specific cities that are set to be targeted by the agency and contain “Know Your Rights” information in English and Spanish. This move is intimately connected to his labor movement support strategy: a targeted immigrant population constitutes a broken link in the chain of working-class solidarity. In addition to being immoral and oppressive on its own grounds, the stripping of immigrants’ political rights makes them hypervulnerable to exploitation, which undercuts the efforts of all workers, regardless of their immigration status, to organize as a bloc for higher pay and better working and living conditions for all.

Sanders’s use of his campaign data to protect immigrant workers and drive protest and picket turnout is the most concrete example of him treating his campaign as an opportunity to materially build and strengthen the labor movement. In the United States, we’ve never seen anything like it. The strategy shows the degree to which Sanders still believes what he believed in 1973. The purpose of electoral politics isn’t simply to maneuver to win votes, he said then. It is “to create a situation in which the ordinary working people take what rightfully belongs to them.”

Sanders continues to use his platform as a bully pulpit from which to antagonize the rich and preach the gospel of workers’ rights. In April 2019, he said that if General Motors wants “to receive another government contract they need to reopen plants in Lordstown, Ohio, and other parts of the country where American workers have seen their jobs eliminated.”

In May 2019, he tweeted, “Delta Airlines is worth billions and paid its CEO $22 million in 2017. It’s fighting its employees who want to join a union and negotiate for better wages, telling them to buy video games instead. That is the kind of greed we are going to end.” He also said in May, “If you paid 1 cent in federal income taxes last year, you paid more than John Deere – a company that made a $2.2 billion in profit last year.” The list goes on.

These examples paint a portrait of a politician determined to name and shame the nation’s corporate elite. No real agenda for workers’ rights is possible without action from below, by workers themselves. But Sanders has shown how no-holds-barred combativeness from the top can amplify and invigorate that action from below. If we want an economy that works for everyone, we should fight to elect the candidate most willing to take on the wealthy few who prefer a system that works only for them.

Of course, even if Sanders is elected, he can’t do it alone. His confrontational posture must be matched by energetic resistance and concerted mass action, emanating from and driven by workers themselves. Sanders knows this; it is the reason he has chosen the campaign slogan “Not Me, Us.” As he puts it, “Real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up.”