Bernie Sanders called me on May Day afternoon to talk about solidarity. The senator and 2020 presidential candidate was in a reflective mood, as we spoke on International Workers Day, a holiday that is celebrated around the world but, because of its radical history, often neglected in the United States. We talked politics, a bit. But then we got into a deeper discussion about the ideals and values that underpin progressive movements. Here’s a portion of our discussion.
John Nichols: You’re talking a lot about May Day this year.
Bernie Sanders: I am. I am. The truth of the matter is that, for obvious reasons, May Day is not celebrated or discussed very much in the United States. But I think that the concept behind May Day, which is well over 100 years old, is profound and it remains extraordinarily relevant for today.
What May Day is about, in a very simple sense, is the concept of solidarity. Solidarity tells us that if working people stand together, there is nothing they cannot accomplish. That’s true within a given country, and it’s certainly true internationally. I’m afraid that the concept of solidarity really has been not discussed very much in recent years, especially in America. But it is a vision I think that we have got to strive for—especially at this moment when we’re seeing massive pain in the United States as a result of the pandemic and economic meltdown, where at least 30 million people have lost their jobs in the last six weeks, and where tens of millions of people have lost their health insurance.
I think what May Day is about is bringing working people together in the struggle for justice. And the struggle for justice is about human rights, and it is about egalitarianism. It is why we fight against the massive level of income and wealth inequality—why we seek to address the fact that the people on top have so much political power at the expense of everybody else.
This all speaks to the vision that, within a nation, within the world, working people have got to stand together for justice, to create an economy that works for all, not just a few, to end the absurdity of spending trillions of dollars a year on war internationally while tens of millions of children die from preventable diseases and billions of people live on pennies an hour.
That’s a vision that we have got to reestablish in people’s consciousness, and we’ve got to break through this current worldview that suggests that everybody has got to try to become a billionaire and you can lie, cheat, and steal if your goal is to make billions and not pay attention to the suffering of others. That is a bogus vision, and our job is to say that if we stand together, everybody in America can have a decent-paying job. That is not utopian. We can have government policy that guarantees a good job to all. We can have educational opportunity for all, regardless of income. We can have health care as a human right, not a privilege. We can lead the world here in the United States in combating climate change. We can combat this outrageous and racist criminal justice system and a very, very broken immigration system and more. We can build the houses that people need. We can secure decent retirement for our people.
But we have got to really fight for a new vision for America, rather than this every-person-for-himself-or-herself view that now permeates our society. And to win that fight, yes, we need an understanding of the power of working-class solidarity.
JN: This concept of international solidarity becomes especially important right now because we’re in a period of international crisis with the coronavirus pandemic. If ever there was a time when ideas of international solidarity and working together across borders matters, it should be in a moment when we are trying to prevent the spread of the disease, to come up with vaccines, to share ideas for where we go next.
BS: Absolutely. This pandemic and this economic meltdown have been devastating for people in our country, people all over the world, especially lower-income people. If there is any silver lining in the midst of this horrific moment, it is that maybe, just maybe, we will reevaluate our national priorities and our vision for where we as a nation and as a world want to go into the future.
And we are going to need international cooperation to not only address the pandemic of the day but future pandemics.
We’re going to have to work globally so that scientists and doctors all over the world are sharing their research about what treatments might work and how we can progress toward a vaccine for this virus and for future pandemics.
The nature of a virus and a pandemic requires, absolutely requires, international cooperation. But, unfortunately, we have a president, Trump, who is cutting funding for the World Health Organization, picking fights with China, etc. That is exactly the wrong response at this moment.
JN: The ideal of international solidarity is not new. As you said, it has deep roots, especially for democratic socialists. I read some of the statements Eugene Victor Debs issued a century ago on May Day. What was striking to me was how much of what he said a hundred years ago anticipated what you have been saying, and what a lot of young folks who are coming into politics are saying.
BS: That’s true. Look, when we think about where we are as a nation, it is painful to me that there is, again for very obvious reasons, not an understanding or an appreciation of real American history and the role that people like Debs played a hundred-plus years ago in the struggle for workers’ rights and for justice. I would be willing to guess that 90 percent of the American people don’t know who Debs was, or the role that he had in building up the industrial trade union movement in America, or his anti-war activities, or the other struggles that he waged. Not many people know the huge impact that Debs and the Socialist Party of his time had on creating an agenda for [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt and the New Deal.
I did a video on Debs back in the late 1970s. I had asked students at the University of Vermont if they had ever heard of Eugene V. Debs, and they had not. Of course, that’s true not only for Debs and the Labor Movement; it’s true for African American history, true for Native American history, true for women’s history, for gay rights history. It’s just very disturbing to me how little we know as a nation about our own history.
Certainly, the corporate media does not help with that. Schools do not do a good job in most cases. But it is important. If we want to know where we’re going to go, we have to know where we’re coming from. And I think, in many respects, we don’t. I just think there’s a great deal to learn from our past in understanding how real change takes place—a great deal to learn from the struggles that so many people since the inception of this country have gone through.
We have got to appreciate the wider importance of solidarity within our own country, not letting Trump and his friends divide us up because of the color of our skin or where we were born or our sexual orientation or our religion or our gender, for that matter, but bringing people together around a common vision of a very different future for our country and for the world.
It’s very, very important that we maintain that this vision, this solidarity vision, can be accomplished. Debs and others were talking, for instance, about a world without war. Think of that! Today, we’re just taking for granted that we’re spending $700 billion dollars every year on the Pentagon, on war, on weapons. And other countries around the world are also spending huge amounts of money.
There’s so much misery in the world, but we’re investing in nuclear weapons and in missile systems, and we don’t talk about trying to move toward a world of peace.
JN: You mentioned the New Deal. It would seem that now, more than ever, we could use a better understanding of the New Deal.
BS: Absolutely! How do you know American history if you don’t know about what FDR did during the New Deal? We should be thinking so much more about the New Deal. Examining it. You would think from that momentous moment in American history, where the role of government was fundamentally reconfigured, we could learn a few things.
JN: Part of international solidarity involves learning from other countries. You talk a lot about how progress was achieved by countries around the world.
BS: I do. I want people to understand the gains that have been made in Europe. I’ve just been reading about how the NHS [National Health Service] was developed in the UK and the role that [British Labour Party parliamentarian] Nye Bevan played. I mean, it’s an extraordinary history. Everybody in America knows who Winston Churchill is and the important role he played in World War II. But very few people know that in 1945, he was defeated despite his enormous popularity as a war leader. He was badly defeated by the Labour Party, who in the next five years ushered in a massive transformation of British society in terms of health care and housing and education and many other areas.
JN: World War II and its aftermath were overwhelming times, traumatic times. But it’s often been in traumatic periods in this country’s history, moments of war, depression, natural disaster, that we really make the big changes and that people start to look for different approaches, better approaches. Is that a possibility now?
BS: I would hope so! In the last six or seven weeks, millions of people have lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs. So does anybody believe that we should tie your health care needs to your job? I think more and more people understand that that is totally absurd.
You need health care whether you’re working, whether you’re not, whether you have a good-paying job, whether you have a bad-paying job, whether you’re old, whether you’re a kid.
Health care must be a human right, and if we don’t learn that lesson right now, we will never learn that lesson.
I would hope that, out of this crisis, we will see some significant growth in political support for a Medicare for All, single-payer program. That’s number one.
Number two, from an economic perspective: The vast majority of people [here] have been hurt economically because of this pandemic. What does it mean that, in the richest country in the history of the world, maybe half of our population survives paycheck to paycheck? So in the middle of a so-called “strong economy,” it turns out that when people lose their paycheck for a few weeks, they’ve got nothing in the bank and they are in economic desperation and they’re forced to go to emergency food banks to get the food they need to literally stay alive.
This exposes the mythology about a “good economy.” You don’t have a good economy when half of your people have nothing in the bank and are dependent every week on their paycheck in order to literally stay alive.
JN: May Day has historically been closely associated with organizing workers and making demands for a fairer distribution of wealth. Do you think that we are in a time where the trade union movement will be revitalized?
BS: I think there is an excellent chance that we will see stronger unions. Given the disparities of income and the fact that so many workers are working for starvation wages, I think we will see an increase in the number of people who want to join unions, and in the militancy of those people who today are in unions. We just sent out some tweets today in support of workers at Amazon, Target, and Walmart, who are demanding hazard pay, who are demanding better protective equipment because they’re putting their lives on the line interacting with the customers.
JN: One of the things that FDR and the New Deal taught us was that it is possible to strengthen unions by speaking up for them. But in those days there was government action, as well, to make it easier to organize.
BS: There was. And we need legislation right now. As you know, during the campaign, we outlined a proposal that, in my judgment, would double the number of workers in unions in this country in a four-year period. Double it. What we’ve talked about is simply establishing a process that says that if a majority of workers are in a bargaining unit, plus one, and they sign the cards, they have a union. If an employer refuses to negotiate a first contract, that employer will be severely penalized. And employers will not be allowed to hire workers or to break strikes or to break unions.
I think if you’re going to rebuild a new economy in this country, we need a strong trade union movement. We need legislation to help bring that about.
JN: It’d make for a hell of a May Day if we had a stronger trade union movement!
BS: Yes, it would.