Sanders-sponsored forum advocates new worker-centered economy after COVID-19
Artinese Malachi, of Swissvale, Pa., and SEIU union LPN, right, shares her experiences with the health care system as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, then still a Democratic presidential candidate, listens during a roundtable discussion with SEIU healthcare workers, Dec. 14, 2019. | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

Though the nation, and the world, are still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic and the global recession it’s produced, five progressive leaders, marshalled by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., are thinking ahead on to how to build a new economy that works for workers, not the rich, out of the ruins.

Sanders and the others, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, agreed on two key attributes progressives and their allies must push for in the coming era: A strong voice and strong unions to make sure workers, not the 1%, have the big say, and that such a change will occur only, as Nelson put it, with action and pressure “from the bottom up.”

The five speakers hosted a virtual town hall livestreamed nationwide on April 15. They drew more than a million unique views, figures flashed at the bottom of the screen showed. Much of their discussion reviewed how the old economy—dominated by the rich and politically powerful—brought the U.S. and the world to the point where the coronavirus pandemic forced everything to shut down.

Before that, the situation was so bad because the business and financial elite created it “by design,” said Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs. “They believe people don’t count, and workers don’t count,” he added. “This has led to the basic breakdown.”

The symptoms of the old economy, shattered by Depression-level joblessness and hundreds of thousands of business closures in an attempt to break social spreading of the coronavirus, include an immense concentration of wealth and power at the top, said both Sanders and Reich. The former Clinton Cabinet member reiterated that three rich men control as much U.S. wealth as the bottom 50% of the country.

“We have 44% of our people living in poverty, because we’ve been led to believe that if you don’t have a job, or if you have certain jobs, you can’t live in dignity,” added Nelson.

Reich pointed out one way to create a mass movement to create a new economy is to get away from the old politics of left versus right. That led the 1% to successfully use divide-and-conquer tactics against the rest of us, he stated. The big issue in the U.S., said Reich, “should be democracy versus oligarchy.”

But thanks to the calamity caused by the coronavirus, “people now understand they’re getting the crumbs—and that they have the power to change that,” he declared.

The panelists agreed the new economy should include retraining people for well-paying jobs in the Green New Deal, rebuilding infrastructure, and creating good well-paying unionized employment. It also should include Medicare for All, income supports such as paid sick and family leave, paid maternity and paternity leave for months if not years, and huge investments in both education and in children, Nelson said.

“We treat our kids worse than any other industrialized country,” she added.

But to achieve all that and a new economy not for the rich, but for the rest of us, will take a mass movement from the bottom up, rather than relying on politicians and leaders from the top down, Sanders said. That’s the same “revolution” theme he pushed in his recently concluded Democratic presidential primary campaign.

And that will take a strong and empowered movement of unions and workers, Nelson said. That means not only comprehensive labor law reform, but true restoration of the right to strike for all workers, complete freedom to join unions and for workers to organize in their own interests, and elimination of other barriers, including those bosses constantly erect.

Watch the full forum sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders: The Future of Our Economy

Sanders hit all those themes during his campaign, when he once again showed voters his outspoken pro-worker and pro-union views.

But it also means, Nelson warned, that unions and workers should follow the lead of those workers—the Teachers in particular—who struck in states and cities from Chicago to Los Angeles to Kentucky to Arizona to West Virginia not for themselves, but for their students. Bread and butter issues are fine, but community causes are better.

The Chicago Teachers Union, she noted, called an 11-day strike early in this past school year not over their own pay, but over living wages for aides and auxiliary staff, more nurses and counselors in schools and demanding the city invest in affordable housing. Such community-based causes should be the aims of the workers movement, Nelson said.

Sanders, however, raised a caution flag: Despite all the rhetoric on the campaign trail and despite the evidence of long lines of jobless people, closed stores, shuttered factories, and no work—all due to the coronavirus—millions of people do not realize the chasm between the rich and the rest of us, much less that the rich and their clout created it.

And so when times get tough, they get swayed by demagogues like GOP President Donald Trump, he said. That’s “bad for our economy and bad for democracy,” added panelist Stephanie Kelton, an economist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Fixing that tilt “is not an economic issue; it’s a political issue,” added Sachs, in language AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka often uses.

That’s where the mass movement comes in, with education to change people’s vision first, Nelson added. What will change the U.S. to the new economy “is not what the administration will do,” even if former Vice President Joe Biden, who triumphed over Sanders and 22 other Democratic hopefuls in the presidential primaries, beats Trump this fall, she said.

“It’ll be what we demand from it. We have a common interest here…The way to achieve it is from the bottom up.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.



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