After weeks of escalating tensions between the United Auto Workers and the major US car manufacturers in Michigan, the labor union expanded its strike to more than three dozen locations across 20 states Friday. The widening dispute—which has brought some General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis plants to a grinding halt—has captured the attention of scores of lawmakers as well as President Joe Biden, who pledged last week to “join the picket line and stand in solidarity with the men and women of UAW as they fight for a fair share of the value they helped create.” Biden’s top 2024 contender, Donald Trump, has also jumped into the fray, attacking the president’s electric-vehicle policies while claiming that if the UAW does not endorse him for 2024, they are “toast.”
All in all, it’s a make-or-break situation for Democrats. Especially in the eyes of the Senate’s most outspoken labor crusader, Bernie Sanders, who is calling on the party to show unwavering solidarity for automobile workers. The UAW strike, he tells Vanity Fair, “is one of the most important labor strikes in the modern history of this country”—and if the Democratic Party fails to meet the moment, it could hand Trump the presidency. “The question Democratic leaders have got to ask themselves is, how does it happen that…Donald Trump has the support of the majority of the working class in this country?”?
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Vanity Fair: We are headed into another election and an election that just like the last one has incredibly high stakes. What are your thoughts on the future of the Democratic Party and the future of the progressive bench?
Bernie Sanders: What I think—which is very good news—is that many members of the Democratic Party are catching on to the fact that they’ve got to reach out to the working class of this country, who are a majority of the American people. The question Democratic leaders have got to ask themselves is, how does it happen that you have a Republican Party—which wants to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, which does not support pro-worker union legislation, and in some cases, dislikes unions—how does it happen that in the midst of all of that, Donald Trump has the support of the majority of the working class in this country? That’s the question that has to be answered.
I think the answer has to do with the fact that for too many years now, Democrats have kind of turned their backs on the needs of the working-class country, and have not acknowledged the economic reality facing tens of millions of people. What is imperative is for Democrats to say, look, we do understand that 60% of workers in this country are living paycheck to paycheck, that half a million people are sleeping out on the streets, that our health care system is broken, that people can’t afford child care, that they can’t afford a retirement. You’ve got to acknowledge that reality. You have got to say, look, we are working night and day, trying to address those issues. We have made some progress, we’ve got a long way to go.
Democrats have to acknowledge that reality and, in my view, develop an agenda widely supported by the American people, which represents the needs of ordinary Americans and not just the people on top. If we do that, I think we defeat Trump. Big time.
Back in 2016, you challenged the “presumptive nominee” in the Democratic primary. Representative Dean Phillips has argued that there should be a more competitive primary this cycle. What are your thoughts on that versus just backing Biden fully?
Well, I think that at this particular moment—in world and American history—this election is of extraordinary importance. It has to do not only with whether you’re going to have a progressive president in office versus an antidemocratic—with a small d—extremist, Trump. This has everything to do with whether or not we are going to recognize and address the climate crisis, whether we’re going to protect democracy, whether we’re going to protect a woman’s right to control her own body, whether or not we’re going to fight for workers rights. President Biden is the candidate right now. I support him. And I think the struggle now is to make the Democratic Party more progressive, more pro-worker, and to see that Biden is elected and elect as many progressive candidates as we can.
We spoke ahead of 2020 about your support for Joe Biden and the hope that he would be the most progressive president since FDR. How has he done so far? Do you think what Biden is pitching as we head into 2024 is working? Or do we need to see more from him, if he wants to beat Donald Trump?
I think the president deserves a lot of credit; he has made it clear that he is a strong believer in trade unions. We have made some modest—but real—progress in dealing with the pharmaceutical industry. We have made some real progress in creating jobs and in building a clean economy. Just the other day, Biden announced the American Climate Corps, which is a big deal in creating jobs for young people to help us move away from fossil fuel. So he has done some good things.
Do I think that in general, the Democrats have been as strong as they might, in terms of which side they are on and the great struggle of our time? Whether you’re going to stand with the oligarchy, or you’re going stand with the working class? No, I don’t think they have been as strong as they might. But I have been pleased to see many Democratic leaders make clear that they are standing with the United Automobile Workers in what is one of the most important labor strikes in the modern history of this country.
I have seen Democrats make it clear, from the president to [Chuck] Schumer on down, that they are on the side of the UAW. That is good, good news.
Why is this such an important moment in labor history for the country?
I am old enough to remember when I was a kid, or a young man, when you heard about the UAW, and you heard about automobile workers, what you understood is those jobs were the gold standard for the working class in this country. Do you follow what I’m saying?
They were paid the highest wages that had the best benefits. They had a strong union and good working conditions. That was the gold standard. And to be honest with you, I have been heavily involved with UAW and I gotta tell you, I was shocked to learn how bad the situation was. I did not know.
You got a two-tier system, you got cutbacks in pension programs. I had not realized how terrible the situation was. I was delighted to be in Detroit just [over] a week ago at a UAW rally. I think that the UAW is doing a tremendous job and standing up to the industry—and by the way, standing up for every American worker in this country. What the UAW is fighting is exactly what’s going on all over the country.
Some Democrats have said Trump has more effectively seized the moment and the messaging around the UAW strike than the Biden administration. What are your thoughts on that criticism?
Trump is of course a fraud and a pathological liar. The evidence is very clear that his attitude toward unions has been a disaster. He appointed anti-union members to the National Labor Relations Board. Trump has suggested that the automobile industry move out of Michigan, and head to cheaper-labor states. So Trump, despite all his rhetoric, is your typical pro-corporate, anti-worker, politician. And I think most people understand that.
Senator, is there anything you’d like to add about the UAW strike?
Abby, what I would say is, what is very exciting to me, is that—at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, at a time of incredible corporate greed—we are now seeing the extraordinary ways the working class of this country is beginning to fight back. I don’t know if you followed the Teamster negotiations with UPS. Did you follow that?
Yeah. A bit, a bit. I’m following UAW much more closely, though.
What the Teamsters did is they ran a brilliant campaign and they won a huge victory against a very powerful corporation like UPS. You’re seeing all over the country, from young people at Starbucks to kids on college campuses. We are working with unions, the nurses, doctors who are literally organizing all over this country; you’re seeing an unprecedented level of union organizing, you’re seeing workers standing up and fighting back. And that just makes me very hopeful that we’re going to be taking on the oligarchy, and creating and moving toward a government that works for all of us and not just the few.
You have done a lot—especially down-ballot races across the country—to boost progressive candidates and progressive lawmakers. Who are the individuals you see as stars in this moment, in the next generation of progressives?
I don’t know about naming stars. But look at the House of Representatives. What is not widely known is that I helped start the [Congressional] Progressive Caucus when I came to the House in 1991. And compared to where we were back then to where the Progressive Caucus is today is just night and day. They have formed a caucus with incredibly, incredibly bright, progressive, young people—often people of color—who are doing a fantastic job in the house. So I think when you look at the potential of the Democratic Party, a lot of that rests right now with some of the great members in the Progressive Caucus in the House. You’re seeing that in legislatures around the country as well.