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Bernie Sanders at union rally

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders talks to workers March 20 at a rally at the University of California-Los Angeles. Members of a union representing research and technical workers walked picket lines at University of California campuses and hospitals in a one-day strike amid a lengthening stretch of unsuccessful contract negotiations.

When working-class Wisconsinites took to the streets in February of 2011 as part of what would become a mass mobilization against the anti-labor policies of Gov. Scott Walker, they began with little support from national political figures. Republicans were with Walker and Democrats, shaken by the party’s dismal showing in the 2010 midterm elections and the rise of the right-wing tea party, were even more cautious than usual.

But one U.S. senator spoke up. “On, Wisconsin!” declared Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, who immediately identified Walker’s assault on public employees and their unions as "part of the concerted attack on the middle class and working families of this country by the very wealthiest people in America."

“These guys want to return us to the 1920s when working people had virtually no rights to organize or to earn a decent living," explained Sanders, who argued, "There are a lot of folks out there who say, ‘It doesn't impact me, I'm not a union guy, I'm not a teacher, I'm not a civil servant.' Let me tell you how it does matter to you. Wages are going down in this country for everybody. When you destroy unions there will be no standard at all, nobody left to negotiate decent jobs for the middle class.”

Sanders staked out an unapologetically pro-union stance that was rare in a political climate when many Democrats were still clinging to neoliberal dogmas. A lot has changed since 2011, but Sanders continues to push the envelope when it comes to debates about workplace democracy.

This year, as a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, he has supported critical strikes (such as the walkout by 1,700 members of the United Electrical union locals at the sprawling Wabtec locomotive plant in Erie, Pennsylvania), appeared before mass rallies of workers “not as a candidate for president but as somebody who has spent the last 40 years of his life walking the picket lines for unionized workers” (as he did March 20 with members of the University Professional and Technical Employees and AFSCME on the University of California-Los Angeles campus), and welcomed unionization of his campaign staff (by the United Food and Commercial Workers, in a first for a presidential contender).

Often, when veteran political figures emerge as serious contenders for the presidency, they soften their messages. Not Sanders. He’s as ardent now as he was when he rallied with Wisconsin union members eight years ago. Indeed, he has made overturning so-called “right-to-work” laws — which undermine the ability of workers to form unions and collectively bargain — a major theme of his 2020 bid. Championing a workplace democracy agenda (which he has proposed in legislation co-sponsored by Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-chair Mark Pocan, D-town of Vermont), Sanders argues: “In America, workers have the constitutional right to organize. That is called freedom of assembly, and therefore in that legislation, we outlaw the ability of states to pass and maintain right-to-work legislation.”

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By delivering this bold pro-union message as a front-running presidential contender, Bernie Sanders is sending a “Which Side Are You On?” signal that other contenders will not be able to ignore, and that has the potential to transform not just our politics but the lives of working-class Americans.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising. 

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