Eugene Victor Debs, the railroad workers’ union leader who was the Socialist Party’s great organizer and presidential candidate in the first decades of the 20th century, has been my hero since I was a young man, when I took to heart his message that “the very moment a workingman begins to do his own thinking he understands the paramount issue, parts company with the capitalist politician and falls in line with his own class on the political battlefield.”
I was so impressed by Debs, his extraordinary life and work, that I created a short documentary about him in the 1970s, when I ran a small nonprofit media company. The video was sold to colleges and high schools. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings later released the soundtrack as a record. I was motivated to do the video because it was distressing to me how few Americans were familiar with Debs.
Debs was a trade unionist who played a crucial role in laying the groundwork for the rise of industrial trade unionism in America and the eventual development of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. He was a presidential candidate who received millions of votes and whose platform greatly influenced the New Deal, and a man of great courage who spoke out against US participation in World War I—which resulted in his being sent to prison for three years. While he has been dead for almost a hundred years, his life, work, and ideology remain enough of a threat to the corporate world that he has been virtually wiped out of our historical consciousness. There is an important lesson to be learned from that erasure.
Debs was a fervent believer in grassroots democracy and was opposed to authoritarianism and the cult of personality. “I would not be a Moses to lead you into the Promised Land, because if I could lead you into it, someone else could lead you out of it,” he said. I share his view. Real change comes only from the bottom up, when thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and then millions stand together and demand a better deal. Never from the top down. Elected officials should stand in solidarity with workers and do everything they can to empower them. Not “lead” them.
That’s my mission. I embrace it with relish.
I have never been neutral when it comes to workers’ rights. No real change can take place in this country unless working people are prepared to fight for their rights. Part of my job, as a mayor, a member of Congress, a senator, and a presidential candidate, has always been to stand with workers who are fighting for economic justice. I don’t cross picket lines; I join them. It is a privilege to march with workers who have the courage to take on the powerful special interests that dominate the economic and political life of the country.
But my responsibility doesn’t end there. As a presidential candidate and, more recently, as the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, I’ve supported the struggles of working Americans in tough times and fought to give them a greater say in controlling their destiny. And frankly, I am frustrated by politicians who talk a good line about workers’ rights on the campaign trail but then fail to deliver when they acquire power.
That’s bad policy, and bad politics. Democrats made an enormous and far-reaching mistake in the 1990s when President Bill Clinton aligned with Wall Street to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade deals. Workers felt betrayed, and it cost the party dearly in the disastrous midterm elections of 1994, when control of the House and Senate shifted to extremist Republicans, who cynically exploited the opening Clinton had given them. Workers understood that you couldn’t be both pro–Wall Street and pro-worker. For many working-class Americans, Clinton’s choice to side with Wall Street was the end of their allegiance to the Democratic Party, a trend that has only grown over the years.
Democrats should have learned their lesson. But there is very little evidence that they did. Too many of them still do not understand that the policies of a party that is supposed to stand for workers must actually do so when it’s in power.
More than any other occurrence in modern American history, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the ugliness of modern American über-capitalism. While billionaires and CEOs sat safely at home, on their yachts, or in their private planes and corporate profits soared, millions of working-class Americans had no choice but to go to work in hospitals, schools, grocery stores, warehouses, and meatpacking plants. Millions of these essential workers got sick. Tens of thousands of them died unnecessarily. We were reminded that, like the kings and queens of past eras, the very rich know nothing about how most people live, could not care less about real people, and firmly believe they have a divine right to rule.
While the pandemic exacerbated the economic crises facing working families, the chaos we saw in 2020 only crystallized what ordinary Americans had experienced for decades. You won’t hear this discussed on CBS or read about it in the pages of The New York Times, but one of the biggest stories of our time is how, over the course of the past 50 years, this country has witnessed a massive transfer of wealth from low- and moderate-income families to the very rich. Income and wealth inequality is at its highest point since the Great Depression.
I can tell you as a United States senator that the issue of inequality rarely, if ever, gets sufficient attention on the floors of Congress. While we are very good at renaming post offices and acknowledging Super Bowl winners, we don’t often get around to discussing the reality that, after adjusting for inflation, the average worker in America is making roughly $43 a week less today than she made 50 years ago. Think about that. Think about the huge increases in worker productivity that we have seen in the past five decades. Think about the fact that, in 1981, when I became the mayor of Burlington, Vt., the largest city in my state, we didn’t have one computer in City Hall. We didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t have e-mail. We didn’t have printers. The same reality existed, for all intents and purposes, in every workplace in America.
With more efficient machinery, the development of the Internet and digital communications, automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence, the American economy has become dramatically more productive, and the average American worker produces more than ever before.
From the end of World War II until the late 1970s, according to the Economic Policy Institute, increased productivity and increased pay for workers ran roughly parallel. Since then, the measures have parted ways. Between 1979 and 2020, worker net productivity increased by 61.8 percent, while worker hourly pay increased by just 17.5 percent. What happened? “Starting in the late 1970s, policymakers began dismantling all the policy bulwarks helping to ensure that typical workers’ wages grew with productivity,” explain the analysts at the EPI. “Excess unemployment was tolerated to keep any chance of inflation in check. Raises in the federal minimum wage became smaller and rarer. Labor law failed to keep pace with growing employer hostility toward unions. Tax rates on top incomes were lowered. And anti-worker deregulatory pushes—from the deregulation of the trucking and airline industries to the retreat of anti-trust policy to the dismantling of financial regulations and more—succeeded again and again.” Instead of increased productivity translating into increased pay and shorter workweeks, Wall Street investors made off with the cash in one of the biggest heists in the history of the American economy.
That heist transformed the lives of the very rich, allowing them to pursue their wildest dreams—even if those dreams involved building rockets and flying into space. But for the working families that were left on Earth, horizons narrowed. They had to work harder for less. They lived on the margins, struggling to get by. When inflation was surging in 2021 and 2022, many found they could no longer make it. A survey of 500 parents by the nonprofit advocacy group ParentsTogether Action found that about 41 percent said they’ve had to get a new job or work more hours to make ends meet. About 48 percent said they could no longer afford enough food for their family. And almost half of parents who report they are struggling to afford food now that the government has discontinued the expanded monthly Child Tax Credit payments say they have skipped meals so their children have enough to eat.
Is it any surprise that, around the same time that the ParentsTogether Action survey came out, a June 2022 survey of over 1,000 Americans from the Decision Lab found that a whopping 77 percent of respondents reported anxiety about their financial situation? For many families, there’s a sense that—no matter how hard they work—they’ll never catch up.
When I was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, most American families had one breadwinner, who was able to earn enough money to pay the bills. We certainly weren’t rich in my family. But my father, who immigrated to this country at 17—and who, as a young man, did not speak a word of English—eventually found work as a paint salesman. He never made much money. My mother stayed at home and cared for my brother, Larry, and myself. There were plenty of times when they struggled to keep things together in our three-and-a-half-room rent-controlled apartment, No. 2C, at 1525 East 26th Street in Brooklyn. There were always arguments about money. There were hand-me-down clothes. There were tattered sneakers and baseball gloves. And my mother, who died at 46, never achieved her dream of owning her own home. Yet we were never without shelter, never without food, never without the basics of life.
Today, the notion that a family of four could get by in New York City on the earnings of a not particularly well-paid paint salesman is unimaginable.
Unfettered capitalism will never accomplish the goal of bringing dignity to work. The American economic system, with its excessive corporate greed and concentration of ownership and power, destroys anything that gets in its way in the pursuit of profits. It destroys the environment. It destroys our health. It destroys our democracy. It discards human beings without a second thought. It will never provide workers with the fulfillment that Americans have a right to expect from their careers. Instinctually, we know this. But we don’t talk about it in these terms—the terms that can frame out an argument for something different. Something better.
To get that something better, people have to confront the system itself.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that. That’s why, in his 1944 State of the Union address, he made the case for establishing and recognizing economic rights. Unfortunately, because it was delivered in the midst of World War II, FDR’s argument never got the attention it deserved. But the point he sought to make then is every bit as relevant today. In his address Roosevelt said, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
Americans are proud that our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, a free press, and other rights. We understand that we can never have political freedom unless we are free from authoritarian tyranny.
But, as Roosevelt explained almost 80 years ago, if we are serious about creating a truly free society, we must take the next step forward and guarantee every man, woman, and child in our country basic economic rights: the right to quality health care, the right to a good education, the right to decent and affordable housing, the right to a secure retirement.
And the right to a secure, well-paying, and meaningful job.
To achieve the genuine freedom to which we are entitled as human beings, we cannot be satisfied with political democracy alone—especially at a time when democracy itself is under fierce attack. We need economic democracy every bit as much as we need political democracy.
The only way to get it is by breaking the shackles of the old thinking that says there is no alternative to unfettered capitalism. We’ve got to upend the lie we’ve been told for decades, the one that says: This is how the system works. This is how globalization works. This is how capitalism works. This is how employers and employees will always relate to each other.
There’s nothing you can do about it.
So just shut up and get back to work.
The time is long overdue to address the rampant greed, inequality, and destructiveness that is being caused by the unfettered capitalism we now experience. We need an economic system that serves humanity rather than exploits it. There can be honest debates about how best to achieve that end, but in my view, there are at least four steps that must be taken:
1. Create a full-employment economy in which every worker is entitled to a decent job.
2. Strengthen the trade union movement, empower workers, and make unions a genuine counterbalance to corporate power.
3. Remove the barriers to worker ownership and increase the presence of workers on the boards of corporations that are privately owned.
4. Address the reality that technological change is rapidly transforming work in the 21st century, just as a combination of technological progress and free-trade policies did in the 20th century. It is imperative that we make certain these sweeping changes to the workforce benefit ordinary Americans, and not just the 1 percent who own the technology.
During my 2020 presidential campaign, I proposed a federal jobs guarantee that would establish, once and for all, that every American has the right to a job. For me, this rejection of austerity economics wasn’t just a line in a speech or a casual embrace of populism. It became a major focus of my campaign, because I believe that a federal job guarantee will be transformational for our society. Let’s be clear: This concept is about much more than just providing work and an income for people who are unemployed, as important as that is. A job guarantee will help us rebuild our country, go a long way toward ending economic insecurity, improve mental health, and create a stronger sense of community. It will create a much healthier and happier America.
How would a federal job guarantee work? It’s not hard to figure out where to begin. We need more doctors, nurses, dentists, home health care workers, nursing home attendants, social workers, and other medical personnel—a number that will have to radically increase after we move to a national health program and all Americans can access the health care they need.
We need more child care workers and teachers, a number that will also increase as we improve the quality of public education in this country, expand educational opportunities, and address our crisis in mental health. And, as the nation ages, we will need millions of additional workers to provide supportive services for seniors to help them age comfortably in their homes and communities, which is where they want to be.
We will require millions of new construction workers as we build large numbers of desperately needed units of affordable housing and as we rebuild our crumbling infrastructure—roads, bridges, water systems, wastewater plants, and public transportation. We will also greatly increase the number of our manufacturing jobs in order to supply all of the products that new housing and infrastructure require.
And, oh yes, there is the slight matter of saving our country and the planet from the devastating effects of climate change and the catastrophic damage that will occur if we do not rapidly move away from fossil fuels. If we are serious about moving to efficient and sustainable energy and substantially lowering our carbon emissions, we will need millions of workers to help us make that historic and essential energy transition.
We can meet all those needs—and those that arise in the future—if we create a job guarantee that is sufficiently visionary, and sufficiently funded. “The goal is to eliminate working poverty and involuntary unemployment altogether,” explains Darrick Hamilton, an economist at the New School, who has advised me on these issues for a number of years. “This is an opportunity for something transformative, beyond the tinkering we’ve been doing for the last 40 years.”
Will a job guarantee cost money? Of course. But failing to invest in our future costs us even more.
For much of the 20th century, there was a shared understanding of the role unions needed to play, not just in improving the circumstances of workers but in providing a counterbalance to powerful business interests. Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt got it. A North Carolina mill worker famously said, “Mr. Roosevelt is the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand that my boss is a son-of-a-bitch.” During FDR’s presidency, the share of private-sector workers who were union members rose from 15 percent to 34 percent. The growth of organized labor continued into the 1950s, when a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, said, “Today in America unions have a secure place in our industrial life. Only a handful of unreconstructed reactionaries harbor the ugly thought of breaking unions. Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of the right to join the union of their choice.”
Support for unions was not really a debatable point. Strong unions were associated with a strong America.
Tragically, those days ended around the time that Ronald Reagan fired the striking air-traffic controllers in 1981.
In the last several decades, unions have been attacked and beaten down so aggressively—and in many cases illegally—that today less than 11 percent of Americans are union members. And as of 2022, that figure is 6 percent in the private sector.
This did not happen by accident. The corporate world—the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable, and other powerful business groups—knew exactly what they were doing. They fully understood that strong unions can put a check on the kinds of greed, exploitation, and unilateral decision-making that exist in non-union companies. These corporate titans knew that a good union contract means that a larger share of corporate profits goes to the needs of workers, not just to high dividends for wealthy stockholders, stock buybacks, and outrageous CEO compensation. That’s exactly what they did not want to see, and they acted accordingly.
According to data compiled by economic research groups:
§ Between 1999 and 2003, as an example, 75 percent of private-sector union elections saw an employer hire outside consultants to run an anti-union campaign during the election; in 89 percent of union elections, employers forced employees to attend captive audience meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; and in 54 percent of private-sector union elections, employers threatened workers during mandatory one-on-one meetings.
§ Data collected between 1995 and 2007 indicates that an employee who engages in a union organizing campaign has a one-in-five chance of getting fired.
§ A study of union campaigns in Chicago in 2002 found that nearly 50 percent of employers threatened to close or relocate their business if workers elected to form a union.
§ Even when workers can overcome these enormous obstacles and win union elections, more than half of workers who vote to form a union don’t have a union contract a year later, and 37 percent still do not have a first contract two years after the election, due to loopholes in the labor laws, according to a study published in 2009.
By 2022, the United States had lower levels of unionization than at any time since FDR was imagining the New Deal project in 1932. The 58 unions that make up the AFL-CIO now have only 12.5 million members.
The decline of unions has cost American workers dearly, especially the young and people of color. So many Americans are hurting, but they don’t have the tools to fight back.
The irony of our moment is that even though unions are at just about the weakest point in my lifetime, public opinion polls show that they are more popular than at any time in decades. A Gallup survey done in August 2022 found that 71 percent of Americans approved of unions. That was the greatest level of support since 1965, and it was higher than at some points during FDR’s presidency. At a time when the middle class continues to shrink and more than 60 percent of our people live paycheck to paycheck, the average American knows that if we’re going to rebuild the middle class, we need to rebuild the union movement.
When that connection becomes clear, the necessary course of action also becomes clear. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to remember what FDR did during the Great Depression, when he and Democrats such as New York Senator Robert Wagner succeeded in passing legislation that struck down many of the most egregious barriers to union organizing. In 1932, the year Roosevelt was elected, union membership was around 2.9 million. By the time his presidency ended, it was over 13 million and rising.
FDR’s efforts to put government on the side of working people were effective: Production increased, and so did prosperity. It can work again.
During the 2020 campaign, I developed a plan for strengthening unions and increasing union membership. I stated, “There are many reasons for the growing inequality in our economy, but one of the most significant reasons for the disappearing middle class is that the rights of workers to join together and bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions have been severely undermined.”
To address this reality, I proposed to:
§ Double union membership in four years by allowing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify a union if it receives the consent of a majority of eligible workers; repeal restrictive sections of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act; and prevent corporations from gaming the rules by classifying employees as independent contractors.
§ Establish federal protections against the firing of workers for any reason other than “just cause,” a change that would make it more difficult to intimidate workers who are engaged in organizing unions and negotiating contracts.
§ Enact “first contract” provisions to ensure that companies must negotiate a first union contract within a reasonable period of time.
§ Deny federal contracts to companies that pay poverty wages, outsource jobs overseas, engage in union-busting, deny good benefits, and pay CEOs outrageous compensation packages.
§ Eliminate right-to-work (for less) laws and guarantee the right to unionize for workers historically excluded from labor protections, including farmworkers and domestic workers.
I understand that it may be hard for many Americans to imagine a future where employees are no longer at the mercy of their bosses. Workers and their unions have been so frequently attacked, beaten down, and dismissed that the task of securing a fair shake for the working class seems overwhelming. I don’t see it that way. I believe that working-class Americans are more engaged, more energized, and more prepared to pursue economic justice than at any point in my lifetime.
That pursuit will be challenging, but I am convinced the future for the working class holds all the possibility that Eugene Victor Debs foresaw. “Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked and clubbed into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, traduced by the press, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated by renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested by spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders,” he wrote at the dawn of the 20th century. “But notwithstanding all this, and all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission of emancipating the workers of the world from the thralldom of the ages is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.”