Bernie Sanders: Workers should control the means of production
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., greets workers during a rally at the University of California Los Angeles, on March 20, 2019. Sanders' campaign for the presidency has taken an even more social democratic turn with his proposals for worker ownership of firms and putting workers on the boards of companies. | Richard Vogel / AP

WASHINGTON—Now Bernie Sanders is really beginning to sound like a socialist on the presidential campaign trail—and nobody’s batting an eyelash.

The Vermont Independent, who has proclaimed himself a democratic socialist even before he was mayor of Burlington, Vt., and long before entering Congress, continued his campaign to win widespread union support for next year’s Democratic nomination by saying he will propose workers take ownership of individual plants and businesses, removing them from the hands of the bosses and financiers who back them.

Various media reports offer some details of Sanders’ plan, along with a second Sanders proposal to seat workers on corporate boards, just as workers now, by law, sit on corporate boards in Germany.

“We can move to an economy where workers feel they’re not just a cog in the machine—one where they have power over their jobs and can make decisions,” Sanders told The Washington Post. “Democracy isn’t just the opportunity to vote. What democracy really means is having control over your life.”

Rolling out the two plans follows Sanders’ previous declaration, in early-primary state Nevada, that he opposes for-profit charter schools, as well as any public money for charters.

So-called education “reformers” push the charters. The reformers hate teachers’ unions, oppose higher teacher pay, and want to kill due process protections for teachers.

Charters are also the bête noire of the two major teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. But recognizing they exist, AFT is busy trying to organize the charters, too.

Sanders’ latest two plans, however, would appeal to industrial workers—who are his own traditional target audience and who were the subjects of Karl Marx’s original Das Kapital.

One Sanders plan would create “worker wealth funds” which corporations would be required to contribute into, and which would both pay dividends to the workers and buy shares in those firms to give workers ultimate voting control. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., another contender, is considering a similar idea.

Sanders’ proposal for worker ownership is a new iteration of a plans put forward decades ago by Swedish trade union economist Rudolf Meidner, who envisioned a gradual socialization of industry by requiring owners to dedicate a percentage of yearly profits into union-owned “wage-earner funds” that would be used to buy shares in the company. Over time, the employees’ funds would buy up more and more of the company until eventually workers controlled a majority stake or even everything. The plan, though pursued by the Social Democratic Party, was never fully realized in Sweden.

Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project summarizes the concept behind the Meidner and Sanders plans as a form of “funds socialism”:

“[C]apital ownership no longer takes the form of an individual business owner presiding over an empire, but instead takes the form of affluent families owning diversified portfolios of real estate and financial assets like stocks and bonds. The socialization of those assets into funds owned and controlled by workers or society would thus provide a relatively simple glide path into a kind of market socialism.”

The simplicity of such a glide into such a form of social democracy may be debatable, but the idea certainly marks a more radical turn for the Sanders campaign.

His other proposal would mandate workers sit on corporate boards in all circumstances—regardless of how much stock they hold. Another contender, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., unveiled a virtually identical idea last year.

Germans have lived with workers on corporate boards, though not in the majority, since 1952, as a result of the post-World War II constitution drafted for West Germany with U.S. help. The pro-worker section is supposed to prevent a re-run of corporate chieftains having unbridled leeway to support another Hitler with war production.

The two Sanders plans, which he would call democratic socialism, are among several differences in the current Sanders campaign from his one four years ago. Then, he criticized income inequality and pushed Medicare for All onto the national agenda as his lead points.

Then, only five unions supported his White House bid, though 20 supported Medicare for All. The next year, at its convention, the AFL-CIO did, too—but as one of several ways it endorsed to get to universal health care.

This time, more than a dozen unions, plus fellow contender Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., support Medicare for All, which is single-payer government-run health care. Sanders inveighs against the insurance industry and its high co-pays, deductibles, and premiums. Harris would abolish and outlaw the insurers.

In another difference from his run four years ago, Sanders has been on the phone with or met in person several union leaders, including AFT President Randi Weingarten, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, and Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry, reports say.

AFT and SEIU gave pre-convention endorsements—over flak from their members—to eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton four years ago. Sanders finished second, giving Clinton all she could handle in the primaries, as the enthusiasm and commitment of his backers countered her significant establishment support.

This time, Weingarten, at least, likes what she’s heard so far. Her union has also changed its endorsement process to bottom-up, not top-down as in 2016. Rank-and-file members bombarded AFT with outraged e-mails and at least one president of a big AFT local protested, too.

“Look, Bernie really wants to be president. And I think what he’s doing is the work of relationship-building,” Weingarten told another media outlet. “Bernie has spent time not only being the iconoclast he is and being the independent soul he is but also working with allies to work for a better country.”

Sanders wasn’t the only Democratic hopeful wooing union members during the waning days of May. Former Vice President Joseph Biden used an AFT-sponsored town hall in Houston to unveil his education platform: More spending for schools that educate low-income kids, a ban on guns in schools, an increase in psychologists and other health care workers in schools, and aid to teachers who carry massive student college debt loads.

Those are in line with teachers’ unions’ goals—and the opposite of schemes President Donald Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos push. They want to cut school aid, not forgive the debts, and force teachers and other school personnel to carry weapons.

C.J. Atkins contributed to this story.

Like free stuff? So do we. Here at People’s World, we believe strongly in the mission of keeping the labor and democratic movements informed so they are prepared for the struggle. But we need your help. While our content is free for readers (something we are proud of) it takes money — a lot of it — to produce and cover the stories you see in our pages. Only you, our readers and supporters, can keep us going. Only you can make sure we keep the news that matters free of paywalls and advertisements. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, support our work by becoming a $5 monthly sustainer today.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.