Sanders offers his own jobs plan at Middlebury Labor Day event
MIDDLEBURY — U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., marked Labor Day with a sobering message for workers: Barring an abrupt change in the federal government’s economic policies, the nation’s unemployment problems will worsen and household incomes will go down.
Sanders made his remarks before a capacity crowd at Middlebury’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, an audience that had assembled for a Labor Day dinner and rally sponsored by the Vermont AFL-CIO and several other statewide union groups.
The state’s junior senator drew repeated applause from a crowd that was clearly receptive to his message: The United States should stop giving tax breaks to large corporations and the wealthiest citizens and should instead invest such capital in hiring more public servants and improving the nation’s roads, bridges, schools and rail systems.
Sanders began by sharing some of his observations from a recent tour of the damage wrought on Vermont last week by Tropical Storm Irene. He noted 30 police officers from Chittenden County volunteering to relieve their colleagues in the hard-hit communities in Brattleboro and Wilmington.
“They did it because they wanted to do it, because they were proud to do it, and because it is what solidarity is all about,” Sanders said.
He recalled seeing “truck after truck” furiously hauling gravel to lay the base for soon-to-be-rebuilt roads in Wilmington.
He lamented the loss in Rutland of Michael Joseph Garofano and his son, Michael Gregory Garofano, who were swept away when a bank gave way near Mendon Brook while the elder Garofano was checking on the city’s water reservoir. Michael Joseph Garofano was supervisor of Rutland City’s water treatment plant.
“Today we honor these people,” Sanders said, a courtesy he added should be extended to workers in all walks of life.
But Sanders warned that the U.S.’s working population is shrinking, and that many of those who still have jobs are seeing their benefits and wages erode.
He cited health insurance as an example of a benefit that is becoming increasingly elusive for Americans. Quoting from a recent Harvard University study, Sanders said approximately 45,000 Americans will have died by the end of this year “because they don’t get to the doctor when they should.”
Sanders praised the Vermont Legislature for passing a bill this year that lays the foundation for a singlepayer health care system. He predicted other states will soon follow suit, beginning with New Hampshire, New York and California and then extending throughout the nation.
“When we accomplish that task, and when Vermont says to the nation and the world that we believe every man, woman and child — regardless of income — is entitled to the best health care the system can provide, what we will have accomplished is a revolutionary step forward for everyone,” Sanders said.
In the meantime, he said the nation must do more to preserve current jobs and create new ones. Precipitated by the financial meltdown on Wall Street and fanned by what he said were flawed economic policies, Sanders asserted the nation was losing jobs at a rate of 700,000 jobs a month as the presidency of George W. Bush was drawing to close.
“We have recovered somewhat since then, but everyone in this room knows that we are in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Sanders said.
He disputed current labor statistics showing a national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent. He said the more accurate number — when factoring in part-time workers and people who have given up looking for jobs — is actually more than 16 percent (25 million Americans).
And those who are working are able to buy less with their salaries, according to Sanders.
“Median family income has declined by over $2,500 during the last 10 years,” Sanders said. “In other words, people are working and working, and they have less income today than they had 10 years ago.”
The past decade has seen 50,000 U.S. factories close, according to Sanders, who said entrepreneurs are increasingly having their products made in countries in which workers are paid a wage of less than $1 an hour.
But not everyone is struggling, Sanders said.
“While we are seeing a significant increase in poverty, there is another phenomenon that is going on,” Sanders said. “The people on top have never had it so good. In America today, we have the most uneven distribution of wealth and income of any major country on Earth.”
Sanders said the top 1 percent of most affluent Americans earn more income than the bottom 50 percent.
Furthermore, Sanders asserted that the wealthiest Americans are acquiring media outlets and paying lobbyists in an effort to sustain current government policies that work to their advantage.
“What ‘big money’ is doing is not only enriching themselves, they are creating a political and economic infrastructure to protect their own interests,” Sanders said.
He noted federal lawmakers have been negotiating ways to pare a national debt that stands in excess of $14 trillion, and a $1.3-trillion deficit. Sanders said some of his colleagues are reluctant to roll back tax breaks for the highest earners and are instead seeking to balance the federal books by cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Medicare, education and a variety of social services programs. He said he voted against a debt reduction package featuring such items.
Sanders said he would prefer that the nation’s highest earners and most affluent corporations pay higher taxes, and that the country pare back on what he called “excessive military spending.”
“It struck me as morally obscene that a time when the wealthiest people are getting wealthier, that they are not asked to give one nickel for deficit reduction,” Sanders said.
“In term of economics, we are not going to have the economic growth that we need until we put money into the hands of working people,” he added. “Laying off hundreds of thousands of workers is what that (deficit reduction) bill will do in a severe recession. It did not make a while lot of sense to me.”
Instead, Sanders said the government strategy should be putting more people back to work. With that in mind, he said communities should be encouraged to hire more teachers, firefighters and police officers, and to create more childcare slots.
At the same time, Sanders said the U.S. must invest more in repairing its “crumbling infrastructure,” a chore he said would also put many more people to work.
Quoting the American Society of Civil Engineers, Sanders said the U.S. must spend $2.2 trillion during the next five years “just to bring the infrastructure up to a ‘fair’ level.”
China, according to Sanders, is spending 9 percent of its gross domestic product on infrastructure. Moreover, he said China during the next 10 years plans to build 97 new airports, and already has a high-speed rail system.
“It seems to me that if China can do it, we can build an infrastructure for the 21st century,” Sanders said.
The coming few weeks will see Sanders visit Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. During those visits, Sanders said he tell working families to persevere.
“We are at a pivotal moment in American history,” Sanders said. “This fight is not just about your life or my life. This fight is about our children and grandchildren.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].