Bernie Sanders to UAW Rally: “We Refuse to Live in an Oligarchy”

Bernie Sanders headlined a United Auto Workers rally in Detroit on the first day of the strike, declaring that “every worker, white collar, blue collar, in between, has got to stand with the UAW in your struggle for justice.” We reprint his remarks in full.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and UAW president Shawn Fain speak at a rally in support of United Auto Workers members as they strike the Big Three automakers on September 15, 2023, in Detroit, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

Thank you for inviting me, and it is an honor for me to be here with you today. Let me thank the UAW [United Auto Workers] for standing up not only for your own members, but for the working class of this country. The fight you are waging here is not just about decent wages and working conditions and pensions in the automobile industry. It is a fight to take on corporate greed and to tell the people on top, this country belongs to all of us, not just a few.

There is a reason why a recent Gallup poll had 75 percent of Americans supporting the UAW. They are sick and tired of an economy in which the rich get richer while working families struggle and the most desperate sleep out on the streets. What this struggle is about here in the Midwest is a demand that we finally have an economy that works for all of us, not just a few.

I want to say a few words about something you don’t see much about on TV or in the halls of Congress. What is going on in the American economy today is that at a time of unprecedented income and wealth inequality, weekly wages for the average American worker are lower today than they were fifty years ago. In other words, despite a massive increase in worker productivity in the automobile industry and in every sector of our economy, despite the fact that CEOs now make four hundred times what their average worker makes, despite record-breaking corporate profits, despite corporate America spending hundreds of billions on dividends and stock paybacks, the average American worker today is worse off than he or she was fifty years ago.

Brothers and sisters, that is exactly what this strike is all about. And that is why every worker in America, white collar, blue collar, in between, has got to stand with the UAW in your struggle for justice.

In America today, while we have more income and wealth inequality than we have ever had, you’ve got three people on top owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society. Despite all of that wealth, brothers and sisters, 60 percent of our people are living paycheck to paycheck.

And that means that every day they are living under incredible stress. They’re worried about paying the rent, they’re worried about putting food on the table. They’re worried about being able to afford to go to a doctor when their kid gets sick. They’re worried about the high cost of childcare. They are worried about whether they’ll ever be able to send their kids to college. I grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck, and I know a little bit about that.

This is the richest country in the history of the world, and families in America, families in the automobile industry, should not have to live with that kind of stress.

And let me tell you — and Shawn [Fain] has made this point over and over again — in the last fifty years, there has been a massive redistribution of wealth. Problem is, it’s gone in the wrong direction. Instead of going from the top down to the bottom, it’s gone from the bottom up to the top. And what this strike is about, and what workers are standing up all over this country for, is that we’re going to reverse that trend. If the ruling class of this country wants a redistribution of wealth, we’re going to give it to them.

One of the reasons I am so proud to be in Detroit today with the UAW is that back in 1937, your grandparents stood up and helped transform this country with incredible courage. They took on the corporate greed of their day, the power of large corporations, and they help pave the way for a middle class in America.

And here we are today, in 2023, eighty-six years later. And once again, the UAW is helping to lead the effort to rebuild and grow the middle class of America. Thank you very much.

I would like to say a word to the CEOs of General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis: understand the enormous financial sacrifices your workers have made over the years. It is time for you to end your greed. It is time for you to treat your employees with the respect and dignity they deserve. It is time to sit down and negotiate a fair contract.

I say to Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors: last year you made over $29 million. Since you became CEO eight years ago, you have made over $200 million in total compensation. Do you have any clue what it’s like for one of your workers to try to survive on $17 an hour, which is the average starting wage of an automobile worker? Do you know, Ms. Barra, what it’s like to try to raise a family, put food on the table, and pay rent when you’re making twenty bucks an hour?

I say to Carlos Tavares, the CEO of Stellantis: last year you received a 22 percent pay raise, and now you make over $25 million in total compensation. Do you know, Mr. Tavares, what it is like to be classified as a temp? And despite working year after year, you remain a temp receiving wages and benefits significantly lower than your brothers and sisters doing the same exact work? Mr. Tavares, do you have any clue what that is about?

And I say to Jim Farley, the CEO of Ford: last year, you made nearly $21 million in total compensation. My guess is that when you retire from your job, you are going to have a great pension, a golden handshake, and all kinds of benefits. Do you have any clue what it’s like to be a worker getting older, having worked your entire life and not having any money in the bank as you prepare for retirement?

I know sometimes the media has, to say the least, not been as clear as it might be on this: what the UAW is fighting for is not radical. In the first half of 2023, the Big Three automakers made $21 billion in profits, up 80 percent from the same time last year. In other words, they’re doing pretty good. Over the past decade, the Big Three made $250 billion in profits in North America alone. Last year, these companies spent $9 billion — not to improve the lives of their workers, but to pay for stock buybacks and dividends to make their wealthy stockholders even richer.

While the CEOs and stockholders in the automobile industry made out like bandits, the workers who build the vehicles are earning totally inadequate wages, and over the last several decades have fallen further and further behind.

All of you know that there was once a time when a union job in the automobile industry was the gold standard for the working class in America. Well, we are determined to bring those days back again. We will not accept that over the last twenty years, the average wage for American auto workers has decreased by 30 percent after adjusting for inflation. Do you want to know why you’re out on strike right now? That’s the reason.

UAW members stage the a sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, in 1935. (Getty Images)

Now, I read a lot in the media about how a strike is going to be bad for the economy. Well, let me tell you something about the economy. When you have autoworkers who cannot afford to buy the cars they make, that is bad for the economy. When you have autoworkers who can’t afford to take out a mortgage to buy a modest home, that is bad for the economy. When you have autoworkers who can’t afford childcare or to save up to send their kids to college, that is bad for the economy. When you have autoworkers who can’t afford prescription drugs, can’t afford healthcare, that is bad for the economy.

It is totally reasonable for autoworkers to finally receive a fair share of the record-breaking profits that their labor has produced. It means that if the Big Three can afford to spend $9 billion on dividends and stock buybacks last year, they can afford to provide a decent COLA [cost-of-living adjustment] to autoworkers so their wages keep pace with inflation. It means that the time is long overdue to end the disastrous two-tier system. It means finally ending the use of temporary workers. And very importantly, it means that every auto worker receives a decent pension plan so they can retire with dignity.

It means that workers should have the right to strike when an auto company announces that they’ll be shutting down another profitable plant in the United States (and by the way, over the years, they’ve shut down sixty-five of those plants).

But that’s not all. It means that as we combat the existential threat of climate change and try to make sure that this planet is healthy and habitable for our kids, that when the auto industry builds new electric vehicle and battery plants the workers in those plants become part of the UAW and receive the same wages and benefits as union members.

Brothers and sisters, the CEOs of General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis and their major stockholders on Wall Street have got to understand they cannot have it all. We refuse to live in an oligarchy. We refuse to accept a society in which so few have so much and so many have so little.

Brothers and sisters, enough is enough. Let us stand together to end corporate greed. Let us stand together to rebuild the disappearing middle class. Let us create an economy that works for all, not just the 1 percent. And let us all — every American in every state in this country — stand with the UAW.

Thank you very much.