Debt ceiling only the latest Republican attempt to hold workers hostage
Sen. Bernie Sanders takes over as chair of the powerful Senate Labor committee. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

WASHINGTON—The Republican attempt to use the raising of the debt ceiling as an attempt to hold workers hostage, with threats to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is only part of a broadside attack on workers that must be challenged by labor and all its allies.

In a massive critique of the economic tilt favoring the rich versus the rest of us, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., opened his reign over the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee with a devastating review of the state of the economy for workers.

And he promised to use his panel to help pass legislation to try to reverse that disaster—a promise he may be able to keep in the Senate, but the Republican-run House will almost certainly kill.

Sanders’s agenda includes enacting the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act, labor’s #1 legislative priority. It is the most pro-worker comprehensive labor law rewrite since the original 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The PRO Act’s boost to unions “would give workers better wages, benefits and working conditions,” he declared.

“We’ve got news for those large corporations” fighting the PRO Act and exploiting and oppressing workers, Sanders warned. “You are going to stop breaking the law.”

Much of Sanders’ speech before a capacity crowd in a big auditorium in the U.S. Capitol’s basement was a litany of the bleak economy workers face. Millions, he said, can’t afford health care, or prescription drugs, and “are one catastrophe away” from bankruptcy, stress and dying too soon.

It’s not as bad for average workers as the depths of the Great Depression, Sanders admitted in “State of the Working Class,” but he painted a dark picture showing that it’s close.

That’s because the wealth of the top three people in the U.S.—Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates—equals that of the bottom 165 million people, or half the country.

It’s because billionaires earned $2 trillion combined during the coronavirus pandemic while “millions of working families struggle every day to put food on the table…63% of workers live paycheck to paycheck,” and “18 million people pay more than half their income in rent.”

And it’s because the superrich, including those three, use their wealth to buy “maldistribution of political power,” to corrupt an already tilted capitalist system and to erect or finance monopolies and cartels which concentrate economic power in the hands of a few favored firms or chains, exploiting the rest of us.

“What does that mean? The average working family is one catastrophe away” from being plunged into bankruptcy, mental depression, and shortened lives “if your car breaks down, if your landlord raises the rent, if you have to take your child to the hospital, if you lose your job.”

“Stress kills,” Sanders said.

“But you won’t hear about this on the major mass media because the financiers control that, too,” as six chains own most of the nation’s ever-shrinking supply of newspapers. Though he didn’t say so, even fewer goliaths control most of the broadcast media—and one of the most-watched and most-notorious of the broadcasters is right-wing-dominated and slanted Fox.

Despite the rich and their wealth and clout, Sanders reiterated he would continue to push the causes he has championed in decades in Congress. They include raising the minimum wage “to a living wage,” comprehensive labor law reform, universal health care coverage—though he did not utter the words “Medicare for All”—and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

Other Sanders agenda items include curbing corporate greed, enacting paid family and medical leave, federal aid for child care and higher pay for child care workers, strengthening (not cutting) Social Security and Medicare and increasing the quality of the nation’s public schools while cutting college costs and eliminating student debt.

“I see a nation where 85 million people are uninsured or underinsured,” said Sanders, acknowledging FDR’s famous “I see a nation where one-third are ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished” phrase from his 1937 second inaugural address, four years before Sanders’ birth.

“I see a nation where 500,000 people a year go bankrupt because of medical debt. And thousands and thousands of people finally crawl into doctors’ offices and emergency rooms when it’s too late” because their insurers refused to pay for needed medicines.

But Sanders did not lay out a schedule of what his committee would do—and when—to enact legislation to help workers and their families. Instead, he reiterated an earlier warning that he would use the committee to hold corporate chieftains and the financial sector accountable for the harm they’ve inflicted.

Sanders can carry out his agenda because his committee, like all in the Senate, will have a one-vote Democratic majority. Left unsaid is the flip side of that equation: Republicans, led by virulently anti-worker anti-union Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., will run the House Education and the Workforce committee.

One of the first Republican moves: Changing that panel’s name away from “Education and Labor,” again. To them, “Labor” means “unions” and for all but a handful of House Republicans, the word “union” is an epithet.

In the larger picture, that means House committee hearings will be stacked against workers and that legislation Sanders mentioned in his speech, including the PRO Act, faces a House graveyard in this Congress.

Sanders’ entire speech is at

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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.