On Saturday, workers in the middle of a union drive at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., stopped to hear from a special guest: Sen. Bernie Sanders. The onetime presidential candidate, now the Democratic caucus’s point man on political outreach, came to the “March on Mississippi” event both to help the United Automobile Workers’ campaign and to send a message about what opponents of President Trump should be doing.
“What I’m going to be saying is that the facts are very clear, that workers in America who are members of unions earn substantially more, 27 percent more, than workers not in unions,” Sanders (I-Vt.) said in an interview before the speech. “They get pensions and better working conditions. I find it very remarkable that Nissan is allowing unions to form at its plants all over the world. Well, if they can be organized everywhere else, they can be organized in Mississippi.”
In a statement, new Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, the former U.S. labor secretary, lent his support to the rally and the union drive.
“The Nissan workers in Canton deserve to go to work every day without risking their lives,” said Perez. “They deserve to earn a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. And they deserve the opportunity to stand up for their rights without fear of retribution. But since that’s too much to ask from Donald Trump and the Republicans who currently control Mississippi, Democrats will stand with the workers and continue to organize in order to fight back wherever worker’s rights are threatened.”
In a statement, Nissan North American spokesman Brian Brockman disputed the Democrats’ description of the drive.
“The allegations made by the union are totally false,” said Brockman. “The UAW has admitted that these efforts are part of a campaign to pressure the company into recognizing a union, even without employee support. Nissan respects and values the Canton workforce, and our history reflects that we recognize the employees’ rights to decide for themselves whether or not to have third-party representation.”
The Mississippi march, organized by the United Automobile Workers and joined by the NAACP and the Sierra Club, comes as Democrats are reintroducing themselves to voters who drifted toward Trump’s populism last year. Reinvigorated by Trump’s near daily political problems and by an agenda that has drifted closer to traditional Republican economic policies, they’re identifying themselves more closely with liberal policies and labor organizers.
“Some of the poorest states in this country, where large numbers of people have no health insurance and have experienced stagnating wages, have not had the support from progressives that they need,” Sanders said. “It’s time we change that. It means standing up for working men and women.”
On Friday morning, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) delivered a speech at Ohio State University about the how “dignity comes from work,” arguing for an agenda that would boost wages and offer more family leave.
“Populism is for the people — not these people or those people but all people,” Brown said. “True populism is not about who it excludes but who it embraces. The value of work isn’t a black issue or a white issue. It’s not a blue-collar issue or a white-collar issue. It’s not a liberal or conservative issue.”
Brown’s ideas, packaged in a 77-page report titled “Working Too Hard for Too Little,” mirror much of what Sanders ran on in the 2016 presidential primary — and much of what Hillary Clinton adopted for the general election. Some ideas go further.
Like Sanders, Brown argues for a $15 minimum wage, in sync with the campaign waged by the Service Employees International Union. Like Clinton, he pitches 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. Brown, who was also one of the first senators to suggest expanding Social Security payments by raising Federal Insurance Contributions Act, or FICA, taxes, also suggests standardized overtime pay for workers making less than $47,476 and a crackdown on the process of paying workers as contractors to avoid giving them benefits packages.
“I can already hear the complaints coming from the corporate boardroom,” Brown said. “ ‘These ideas cost too much.’ ‘We’ll have to raise prices.’ Funny, you never hear those concerns raised over the cost of shareholder payouts or corporate bonuses. Corporations always want to talk about the cost of raising wages and benefits, but what about the cost of not raising them?”
Like Sanders, Brown is up for reelection in 2018. Unlike Sanders, he represents a state that broke solidly for Trump in 2016 after twice voting for Barack Obama, and he has already drawn an opponent in Josh Mandel, the Republican state treasurer seeking a rematch of their 2012 race.
The first step, as seen by Brown and other Democrats, is holding and winning back the blue-collar voters who rejected Clinton in 2016 after years of voting Democratic. They see appetite for the Trump-centric and personality-focused campaign that failed Clinton in the Midwest.
At this week’s speech by Trump before a joint session of Congress, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) brought a guest who highlighted her campaign for “Buy American” steel policies, highlighting a Trump pledge that has proved hard to fulfill. And in a video message released while senators were heading home for the weekend, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), another member of the 2018 election class, pitched his plan for a five-year ban on former senators or members of the executive branch becoming lobbyists after they leave office — another one-up on a Trump pitch, in this case to “drain the swamp” of Washington influence-peddling.
“After I’m done serving Montana, I know what I’m going to do — I’m still going to be a farmer,” Tester says in the video. “But unfortunately, many of my former colleagues become lobbyists.”
Little of that has cut through in a week dominated by Trump’s speech, and then by questions about whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled the Senate about 2016 conversations with Russia’s ambassador.
The Canton rally and march, Sanders said, provided an opportunity to focus on something concrete — something that Republicans, who now dominate Mississippi and have stopped unionization campaigns in other Southern states, were already dug in on.
“These workers are incredibly courageous,” Sanders said. “One thing we already know is that workers who have stood up for their rights are being harassed, are being discriminated against and are being lectured about the so-called perils of trade unionism. There’s a massive anti-union effort going on, and these guys are standing out their own. They deserve our support.”
At the rally itself, facing throngs of workers and activists who’d come to hear him speak, Sanders hit on familiar themes. America, he said, was “in a race to the bottom” for low wages labor standards.
“What justice is about is the freedom for workers at Nissan to vote their conscience,” said Sanders. “If we can win here at Nissan, you will give a tremendous vote of confidence to workers across this country.”