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Bernie Sanders to Big 3 CEOs: “It is time for you to end your greed.”

Transcript: In an explosive speech at a Detroit autoworker rally, Sanders railed against stock buybacks and called on CEOs to negotiate a fair contract.

Bernie Sanders

US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to members of the United Auto Workers during a rally in Detroit, Michigan, on September 15, 2023. MATTHEW HATCHER/AFP via Getty Images

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Thank you Shawn [Fain], thank you UAW! Thank you for inviting me, and it is an honor for me to be here with you today. 

And let me thank the UAW for standing up, not only for your own members, but for the working class of this country. 

The fight that you are waging here is not just about decent wages and working conditions and pensions in the automobile industry.

It is a fight to take on corporate greed and tell the people on top this country belongs to all of us, not just a few. There is a reason why a recent gallup poll had 75% of Americans supporting the UAW. They are sick and tired of an economy in which the rich get richer while working families struggle and the most desperate sleep out on the streets. So what this struggle is about, here in the Midwest, is the demand that we finally have an economy that works for all of us, not just the few. 

I want to say a few words about something you don’t see much on TV or in the halls of Congress, and that is what is going on in the American economy today and what has gone on for decades. Believe it or not, at a time of unprecedented income and wealth inequality today, weekly wages for the average American worker are lower today than they were 50 years ago. In other words, despite a massive increase in worker productivity in the automobile industry and every sector of our economy; despite CEOs now make 400 times more than what their employees earn; despite record-breaking corporate profits; despite corporate America spending hundreds of billions on dividends and stock [buybacks], the average American worker is worse off today than he or she was 50 years ago.

Brothers and sisters, is exactly what this strike is about, and that’s why every worker in America, white collar, blue collar, in between, has got to stand with UAW in your struggle for justice. 

In America today, while we have more income and wealth inequality than we have ever had in the history of this country, you got three people on top owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society, despite all of that wealth, brothers and sisters, and you know this well, 60% of our people are living paycheck to paycheck – paycheck to paycheck. That means that every day they are living under incredible stress, they’re worried about paying the rent, they’re worried putting food on the table, they’re worried about being able to afford to go to a doctor when their kid gets sick, they’re worried about the high costs of childcare, they’re worried about whether they’ll be able to send their kids to college. I grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck, and I know a little bit about that. This is the richest country in the history of the world. And families in America, families in the automobile industry and every other industry, should not have to live with that kind of stress.

Let me tell you, and Shawn has made this point over and over again. In the last 50 years, there has been a massive redistribution of wealth. The problem is that it has gone in the wrong direction. Instead of going from the top down to the bottom, it’s gone from the bottom to the top. And what this strike is about, and what workers are standing up all over this country for, is we’re gonna reverse that trend. If the ruling class in this country wants a redistribution of wealth, we’re gonna give it to them. And one of the reasons I am so proud to be in Detroit today with the UAW is all of you know your own history. You know that back in 1937, 86 years ago, your grandparents stood up and helped transform this country. With incredible courage, they took on the corporate greed of their day, the power of the large corporations, and they helped pave the way, creating a middle class in America. That’s what the UAW did in 1937 and here we are today, in 2023, 86 years later, and once again, the UAW is helping to lead the effort to rebuild and grow the middle class.

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So today, I say to the CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Stellantis: Understand the enormous financial sacrifices your workers have made over the years. It is time for you to end your greed. It is time for you to treat your employees with the respect and dignity they deserve. It is time to sit down and negotiate a fair contract.

I say to Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors: Last year, you made over $29 million. Since you became CEO 8 years ago, you have made over $200 million in total compensation. Do you have any clue what it’s like for one of your workers to try to survive on $17 an hour - which is the average starting wage of an automobile worker? $17 an hour. Do you know, Mrs. Barra, what it’s like to try to raise a family, put food on the table and pay the rent when you’re making $20 an hour?

I say to Carlos Taveres, the CEO of Stellantis: Last year you received a 22% pay raise and now you make over $25 million in total compensation. Do you know what it’s like to be classified as a temp”, and despite working year after year remain a temp” receiving wages and benefits significantly lower than your brothers and sisters doing the same exact work. Mr. Taveres do you have any clue what that is about?

I say to Jim Farley, the CEO of Ford. Mr. Farley, last year, you made nearly $21 million in total compensation and my guess is that when you retire from your job you’re going to have a great pension, golden handshake, and all kinds of other benefits. Do you have any clue as to what it’s like to be a worker, getting older, having worked your entire life, and not having any money in the bank as you prepare for retirement? 

“Last year, these companies spent $9 billion – not to improve the lives of their workers, not to make their factories safer, but to pay for stock buybacks and dividends to make their wealthy stockholders even richer.“

And let us all be very clear, I know sometimes the media has, to say the last, not been as clear as it might be on this. Let’s be clear that what the UAW is fighting for is not radical.

In the first half of 2023, the Big Three automakers made $21 billion in profits – in six months, up 80% from the same time period last year. In other words, they’re doing pretty good.

Over the past decade, the Big Three made $250 billion in profits in North America alone.

Last year, these companies spent $9 billion – not to improve the lives of their workers, not to make their factories safer, but to pay for stock buybacks and dividends to make their wealthy stockholders even richer.

Meanwhile, while the CEOs and stockholders in the automobile industry made out like bandits, the workers who build the vehicles, you, are earning totally inadequate wages, and over the last several decades, have fallen further and further behind. All of you know that there was once a time when a union job in the automobile industry was the gold standard for the working class in America. Well, we are determined to bring those days back again. We will not accept that over the last 20 years, the average wage for American autoworkers has decreased by 30 percent after adjusting for inflation. 

Do you wanna know why you’re out on strike right now? That’s the reason! 

“When you have autoworkers who cannot afford to buy the cars they make, that is bad for the economy.”

Now, I read a lot in the media about how a strike is gonna be bad for the economy. Well, let me tell you something about the economy. 

When you have autoworkers who cannot afford to buy the cars they make, that is bad for the economy. 

When you have autoworkers who can’t afford to take out a mortgage to buy a modest home, that is bad for the economy.

When you have autoworkers who can’t afford childcare or to save up to send their kids to college, that’s bad for the economy.

When you have autoworkers who can’t afford prescription drugs, can’t afford healthcare, that is bad for the economy. 

It is totally reasonable for autoworkers to finally receive a fair share of the record-breaking profits that their labor has produced.

It means that if the Big Three can afford to spend $9 billion on stock buybacks and dividends last year, they can afford to provide a decent COLA to autoworkers so that their wages keep pace with inflation.

It means that the time is long overdue to end the disastrous two-tier system.

It means finally ending the use of temporary workers”. 

And very importantly, it means that every autoworker receives a decent pension plan so they are able to retire with dignity.

It means that workers should have the right to strike when an auto company announces that they will be shutting down another profitable plant in the United States of America. 

And by the way, over the years they’ve shut down 65 of those plants. 

And that’s not all.

It means that as we combat climate change, the existential threat of climate change, and try to make sure that this planet is healthy and habitable for our kids, that when the auto industry builds new electric vehicle and battery plants, it means that the workers in those plants become part of the UAW and receive the same wages and benefits as union members. 

Brothers and Sisters: The CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Stellantis and their major stockholders on Wall Street have got to understand that they cannot have it all. 

We refuse to live in an oligarchy. We refuse to accept a society in which so few have so much and so many have so little.

Brothers and sisters, enough is enough! 

Let us stand together to end to corporate greed.

Let us stand together to rebuild the disappearing middle class.

Let us create an economy that works for all, not just the top one percent.

Let us all, every American in every state and this country, stand with the UAW.

Thank you all very much. 

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Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006 after serving 16 years in the House of Representatives. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. Elected Mayor of Burlington, Vt., by 10 votes in 1981, he served four terms. Before his 1990 election as Vermont’s at-large member in Congress, Sanders lectured at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Read more at his website.
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