Bernie Sanders backs unionization campaign in Mississippi as Democrats draft populist agenda

By David Weigel

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post

On Saturday, workers at a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., will stop to march for a union and hear from a special guest: Sen. Bernie Sanders. The onetime presidential candidate, now the Democratic caucus’s point man on political outreach, is coming to the “March on Mississippi” to send a message about how organizing can lift workers’ quality of life.

“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. “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.”

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 Donald Trump’s populism last year. Reinvigorated by President Trump’s near-daily political problems and by an agenda that has drifted closer to traditional Republican economics, 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. Tom Perez, the former secretary of labor who was elected Democratic National Committee chairman last week, has spent little of his time since talking about labor issues and much of it discussing Russia.

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.”

This article originally appeared in The Washington Post