The capitalist class is always trying to will Bernie Sanders into death or retirement. A recent New York Times report noted, perhaps wishfully, that his new role as chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions “could be his final act in Washington.” But so far, Sanders is alive and staying put, and the hearings he’s planning for next month could provide some powerful public education on our capitalist system and lend fuel to organizing efforts nationwide.
As head of this committee, Sanders has the power to call CEOs to testify before Congress, and he plans to use that power.
He’s already demanded that Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, appear. Schultz has refused and is sending a lower-level flunky. Makes sense: he’s on his way out and presumably doesn’t want to be remembered as the guy who was humiliated by Bernie Sanders in a viral YouTube clip. Sanders called Schultz’s refusal to appear before Congress “disappointing but not surprising.”
There would be great symbolic value to Bernie Sanders roasting a corporate villain as iconic as Schultz. However, Sanders is going to have pointed questions for any Starbucks executive sent in his place. In January, he wrote Schultz a letter expressing “serious concerns” about the company’s “concerted and relentless” campaign against its workers’ efforts to unionize. Noting that employees had brought five hundred unfair labor practice cases against Starbucks, Sanders noted that workers have a legal right to organize and that, “unfortunately and unacceptably, Starbucks has shown a flagrant disregard for those freedoms. . . . Therefore I urge you to immediately halt your aggressive and illegal union busting campaign . . . and negotiate a contract with the workers that is fair and just.”
Jeff Bezos, too, has been invited to appear. Bezos’s company, Amazon, has also been accused of union busting during a lively and much-publicized organizing campaign. A National Labor Relations Board judge ruled in late January that Amazon had illegally threatened to withhold raises and benefits from workers at two New York City warehouses as retaliation for union organizing. Workers and the Amazon Labor Union have filed dozens of similar complaints. You may recall that Sanders introduced legislation entitled the “Stop BEZOS Act” a few years ago.
Bernie has another, potentially even more popular political intervention up his sleeve: exposing the vaccine profiteers. Sanders has invited Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, before Congress. Bancel, Sanders has noted, developed the vaccine with government money, became a billionaire, and is now quadrupling the price of this product that remains vital to public health. Sanders told the New York Times, “I think Mr. Bancel should be talking with his advisers about what he might say to the United States Senate.” Moderna is a major player in a recent Senate report on “Pharma Pandemic Profiteers.” Bancel has accepted Bernie’s invitation and will appear before Congress on March 22 at 10 a.m. (EST).
Sanders’s invitations are already yielding some results. Moderna said that it will make sure the vaccine is provided free to uninsured and underinsured Americans. That announcement came the same day that Sanders invited Bancel to testify in what Sanders dubbed, with deadpan sarcasm in an interview with Meet the Press, “a wild and crazy coincidence.”
.@SenSanders says it was an “amazing” & maybe a “wild and crazy” coincidence that Moderna announced a patient-assistance plan to give free COVID shots to uninsured Americans the day he asked them to testify before the Senate HELP Committee to look at cost of its vaccine. pic.twitter.com/2cP5k0jVBm
— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) February 19, 2023
These hearings are a savvy political move on Sanders’s part. Tackling the high price of lifesaving drugs, for example, is not only a crowd-pleaser; it’s a bipartisan issue that even some Republicans have signaled an interest in working with Sanders to address. Sanders has pointed out that, even in polling conducted by Republicans, voters rank drug prices as a top issue. Recently, after Sanders learned that Bancel had accepted his invitation, he said on the Senate floor that, while there’s a lot of discussion about how “divided” the nation is,
one of the most important matters facing our country the American people — Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Progressives, and Conservatives — could not be more united. And that is the need to take on the unprecedented corporate greed of the pharmaceutical industry and to substantially lower the outrageously high price of prescription drugs.
In his remarks, Sanders noted that no one knows for sure how many Americans die because they can’t afford the medicine they need, but that a 2020 study estimated that over a hundred thousand Medicare recipients die each year for this reason.
It’s going to be difficult to get much legislation passed with a Republican majority in the House, and, around the country, Republicans are intent on starting boorishly stupid and cruel culture wars. But as he has throughout his career, Sanders is determined to cut through this fog. Other left elected officials should take notes from his approach: by keeping a spotlight on the capitalists most responsible for inequality and exploitation in this country, he will steer the national political climate in a more productive direction.