Democratic presidential candidates and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Bernie Sanders of Vermont played up union ties and a working-class platform on Monday as the club to beat back a corporatist agenda they see as synonymous with the Republican Party.
Klobuchar and Sanders struck similar tones in separate speeches to union delegates at the Paris Las Vegas, calling for strengthening employee protections, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and enacting a fairer trade policy. Both pushed for all Americans to have health care, investments in infrastructure and reversing an economic strategy they see as benefiting corporations over workers. And Sanders said he wants to end right-to-work laws.
The two senators found a receptive audience: more than 700 delegates from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the largest airline and rail union in North America, which represents more than 160,000 members.
On her first trip to Las Vegas as a presidential candidate, Klobuchar, the first female U.S. senator from Minnesota, threw jabs at the GOP. She joked that she “can see Canada from my porch” — a play on former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s infamous remark about Russia — and she chastised former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s examination of a border wall between the U.S. and Canada as “one of my most fond, disastrous political memories of any politician.”
Walker was defeated in 2018, and both Klobuchar and Sanders sought to seize upon the momentum of key Democratic victories last year — none bigger than winning back control of the House of Representatives — as a sign that a tide was turning, or an “arc of justice” had arrived, as Klobuchar put it.
“I don’t come from money, but I have grit, and I have the grit to represent the people of this nation and to have their backs,” Klobuchar said. “And that comes from my roots; it comes from my story.”
Her grandfather was an iron ore miner and a Teamster, her father a journalist and her mother a teacher who walked picket lines. Union memberships not only made her grandfather’s job safer but established the family history that led to her rise from senator to presidential hopeful, she said.
“When unions are strong, our economy is strong,” she said.
Klobuchar pledged to provide back-pay guarantees to federal contractors during government shutdowns, not reward companies that outsource work to other countries. She said she’d pay for a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, in part, by raising the corporate tax rate from 21 to 25 percent to obtain $400 billion in additional funding.
She also vowed to “aggressively enforce” antitrust laws, push for broadband internet for all by 2022 and build upon the Affordable Care Act while fighting the forces that seek to repeal it.
“They think they own Washington, but they don’t own me,” she said of the pharmaceutical industry she charged with prioritizing profits over people.
Sanders also cast himself as a champion for the working class, a longtime advocate who grew up in a 3 ½-bedroom rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn.
“For me, it’s not hard to understand which side I am on,” he said.
Sanders told union delegates that the future of the middle class rests on unions and making it easier to join them, and he criticized income inequality that he said had engulfed the bottom 99 percent and threatened American democracy.
He called for higher wages, keeping promises on worker pensions, expanding Social Security, fully funding Amtrak, investing in high-speed rail and putting pro-worker administrators on the National Labor Relations Board.
He said the Workplace Democracy Act, which he plans to re-introduce in the Senate, would recognize unions once workers sign authorization cards, and penalize employers who refuse to negotiate in good faith.
The bill would also end “the disastrous” right-to-work laws in 28 states, he said.
Sanders also warned that “the incredible power of the billionaire class and corporate America” would fight his reforms, but he was optimistic that a grassroots united front could defeat it.
Sanders also criticized the GOP. He accused “cowardly Republican governors” of voter suppression tactics toward the young, the poor and people of color.
Said Sanders, “If you don’t have the guts to engage in free, fair and open elections, get the hell out of politics and get another job.”