While there are plenty of important primary elections happening now, and even bigger general elections happening in the fall, Senator Bernie Sanders’s rallies in Philadelphia and Boston earlier this month were focused on something entirely different: the struggles of the working class and the importance of building the labor movement.
Sanders was joined at these events by Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson and International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Sean O’Brien, just as he was in Chicago earlier this summer. Bernie’s team called these rallies in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia “The Working Class: Fighting Back Against Corporate Greed.”
Before the rallies, Sanders met with workers, activists, and local progressive elected officials. I was lucky enough to be part of the meeting in Philadelphia. He opened up our meeting by saying, “I don’t want you to tell me what I want to hear, I want you to tell me what you are seeing and experiencing with your own eyes and your own lives. What is going on?”
People stood up and shared stories about how their massive student debt is holding them back, how they could barely continue to afford rent as costs rise and wages stay stagnant, the dismal conditions of our city’s public schools and the school workers who earlier that day took a vote to strike if they don’t get a fair contract, and the need for legislation like the PRO Act to help workers organize without employer interference.
I shared that while both my husband and I have good, union jobs, we still aren’t quite sure how we’ll be able to pay for childcare for our first child, who is due in the next month or so. Even though logically I understand that our country’s childcare system is broken, I have still felt like a failure for not yet being able to “figure it out” on my own, and to balance our budget well enough to easily squeeze in an extra $1,000-2,000 monthly payment. I am sure we’ll end up being fine, or at least better-off than most, but I have felt very alone in this process. I’ve sometimes felt like there’s something wrong with us, or we’re bad with money, or we’re just not deserving of what everyone else has.
But being in the room with so many other people sharing their problems — drowning in student debt, fears about the conditions of our public school buildings, low wages, increasing rents — reminded me that there isn’t anything wrong with me if so many of us are trying our best and still struggling. It’s one thing to know this logically, as I think many of us do, but it’s another to understand it on an emotional level. Too often we don’t share the things we’re scared of or can’t figure out on our own because there’s so much individualism and shame in our society. We’re meant to go at everything alone, believing that if we fail it’s a reflection on us, not the larger systems.
But that’s what makes Bernie Sanders so special: he brings regular working people together, breaks down the barriers between them, and identifies who is truly to blame: the rich and the ruling class. The point of these rallies wasn’t to stump for the Democratic party or any particular candidate, but to gather working people together to, as he put it, “stand up, fight back, and grow the trade union movement.”
At the rally, Sanders said to a crowd of over a thousand people, “We all have to stand up and say, ‘I am a member of the working class, and I am not ashamed of that reality.’” In a country where we’re all meant to imagine ourselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, it’s a breath of fresh air to claim being working-class — and to be proud of that fact.