Last week, Bernie Sanders convened a Senate Budget Committee hearing on the following question: Should taxpayers subsidize poverty wages at large profitable corporations?
The way the subject is posed is classic Sanders. In the past, the senator has told the Walton family, who own Walmart and remain the richest family in the United States, to “get off welfare.” He was referring to the large share of workers employed by companies like Walmart, McDonald’s, Dollar General, and other major corporations, who rely on public assistance to survive because their wages are too low. In this view, it’s not the workers who should feel any shame or criticism for their use of food stamps, Medicaid, or public housing; it’s the executives of corporations, who are underpaying workers, knowing that they won’t be able to survive on their wages alone.
The context for the hearing was the push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — a provision supporters had hoped would be included in the COVID-19 relief bill now making its way through the budget reconciliation process. Sanders, as the Budget Committee chairman, invited CEOs and workers, along with experts on wages and labor market policy — Economic Policy Institute president Thea Lee, former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and University of Washington professor Jacob Vigdor — to speak to the committee. Unsurprisingly, few of the CEOs accepted his invitation.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon “declined my invitation to be with us today,” Sanders said in his opening remarks. He went on to note that McMillon received $22 million in compensation in 2020, while Walmart’s starting wage is $11 an hour.
“Maybe if you are a billionaire family, you may not understand this, but the simple truth is that no one in America can live with dignity, can raise a family, on $11 or $12 an hour,” he said, recounting the times workers have spoken to him “with tears in their eyes” about their struggle to survive on low wages.
This is one of Sanders’s strengths: making use of his position to criticize the rich for their exploitation of the working class. It isn’t just good political theater; it’s also strategically effective. When Sanders introduced the Stop BEZOS (“Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies”) Act in 2018, he was again focused on pointing out how the country’s largest employers underpay workers. Numerous commentators at the time tried to argue that the bill was unworkable, impractical. But then something remarkable happened: Amazon announced it would raise its starting wage to $15 an hour. As I wrote at the time, there was, of course, small print attached to the raise, but it was an unambiguous win for workers, one in which Sanders’s criticism had an obvious role.
This time, Walmart, the country’s largest employer, announced it would increase a portion of its workers’ wages — the company claims 425,000 workers will see a raise — mere days after Sanders invited the CEO to attend the Budget Committee hearing. And the one CEO who did attend the hearing, Costco’s W. Craig Jelinek, used the occasion to announce that the company would raise its starting wage, currently $15 an hour, to $16.
The hearing also had its share of powerful moments. Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s worker in Kansas City, Missouri and Fight for $15 organizer, told the committee about how fast-food wages had failed him and his family. Calling into the hearing from what looked like a union office, posters behind him reading “ON STRIKE,” Wise explained that his mom had worked full time at Hardee’s. They’d lived in government housing, but still didn’t have enough money to get by.
“I was going to go to the University of South Carolina and be a writer,” he said. “But I started working at sixteen to help my family. My first job was at Taco Bell, making $4.25 an hour. Then I got a second job at Wendy’s. I had to leave school and my college dream behind: at seventeen, I became a full-time worker.”
Wise, now forty-one years old, still works full time in fast food, now at McDonald’s. His fiancée is a home health care aide, but even with both their incomes, they’ve been evicted from their housing, and homeless, all while raising three children.
Wise’s testimony was followed by that of Cynthia Murray, of Hyattsville, Maryland, who has worked at Walmart since 2000 and is a leader with United for Respect. Despite her decades with the retail giant, Murray still makes under $15 an hour.
“I’m going to be sixty-five in three months, and I have no retirement plans,” she told the committee. “My doctor says I need an MRI for my back, but I’m putting it off because I can’t afford the co-payment. People like me are putting off retirement, putting off health care, because people like you have put off raising the minimum wage for twelve years.”
Murray went on to tell the committee of coworkers going hungry, sitting in the break room with nothing to eat. (After the minimum wage proposal was sunk, in large part by the actions of Democrats, Murray said, “Essential workers have risked our lives through this pandemic. We did our jobs, while making poverty wages. Now it is time for Congress and President Biden to do their jobs and pass the $15 minimum wage. No more excuses based on obscure rules, now is the time to deliver: We need $15 to survive, and anything less in the final COVID relief bill will not be acceptable.”) Senators Sanders, for his part, says Democrats should ignore the ruling of the Senate parliamentarian and has vowed to soon force the Senate to vote on an amendment to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
These are testimonies not often heard by the most powerful people in the United States, and the committee members, many of whom are aggressively opposed to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, had little to say to Wise and Murray beyond thanking them for their “work ethic.” Those opposing the proposal saved their questions for Costco’s Jelinek, whom they tried to get to agree with them that while Costco can afford higher wages, small businesses cannot.
The real star of the panel, for those opposed to the wage hike, was Carl Sobocinski, the owner of 301 Restaurant Group in Greenville, South Carolina, which employs some three hundred people in nine restaurants. Sobocinski spoke of his workers’ love of the tipped minimum wage, insisting that “When you talk to tipped workers, they love the system as it is. They love the system as it’s set up.” Sobocinski explained that restaurant owners in places like South Carolina might not be able to survive a $15 minimum, leading some of the committee members to use his testimony as an occasion to talk about their own small businesses.
Toward the end of the session, Sobocinski pivoted from answering a question to addressing Wise, the McDonald’s worker.
“Mr Wise,” he said, “if you want to come back to South Carolina, you have made an impression today, and you’re underutilized. I’m sorry your employer doesn’t recognize that, but we would love to take you and put you in a position where you have the opportunity to grow.”
The camera only showed Sobocinski’s face, so there’s no way to know how Wise responded to the overture from a man who had just insisted bizarrely that restaurant workers “love the system,” and was on the panel to testify against raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The screen cut back to Senator Sanders, who moved on with the business at hand.