Two weeks ago, nineteen presidential hopefuls descended on Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the Democratic Party’s 2019 Hall of Fame event. Inside of the Hilton-owned, Doubletree hotel, where the event was held, each candidate gave a short speech describing their platform and the goals of their campaign. For most candidates, this was a fairly standard event, an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to the Democratic Party and some of its most influential local supporters.
The activities before the event, however, were much livelier. Each campaign marked territory near the DoubleTree. Supporters wore t-shirts, pins, and stickers, while chanting and holding up signs. Notably absent from the festivities were two Democratic frontrunners, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Biden had curiously decided not to attend the event at all and though Sanders was in Cedar Rapids, he had called on his supporters to meet at a local McDonald’s rather than in front of the hotel. Sanders had chosen to stand in solidarity with striking McDonald’s workers, who were demanding union representation and a $15 minimum wage. In front of the fast-food establishment, he gave a rousing speech highlighting the recent success of the Fight for $15 movement, which has pushed Disney and Amazon, as well as states like New York, to raise their minimum wage to $15/hr.
After the rally at McDonald’s, Sanders, his supporters, other activists, and the workers regrouped in front of the Cedar Rapids City Hall. From there they marched up the street in front of the Doubletree, passing the crowds of the other candidates, and yelling out their demands. Pausing in front of the hotel, the strikers continued their chants, with the hope of making their presence felt to the other candidates and the Democratic Party officials, who had already entered into the event area.
This is the latest example of Sanders’ commitment to worker rights. Only a few weeks ago, Sanders spoke at Walmart’s annual shareholders’ meeting calling for worker representation on the board of directors and an increase in its minimum wage to $15. And since Trump’s election in 2016, Sanders has advocated on behalf of workers on several occasions. Most notably, in the Senate Sanders introduced the “Stop BEZOS” which was aimed at taxing large companies whose wages are so low that many of their workers are forced to rely on federal assistance, like food stamps and Medicaid. Shortly after this bill was introduced, and following relentless public criticism from Sanders, both Disney and Amazon raised their minimum wages to $15/hour.
His public advocacy on behalf of workers has interesting implications for Sanders’ 2020 presidential run, as well. In 2016, there was a clear division between the Sanders and Clinton wings of the Democratic party. This time around, however, nearly every candidate, besides Joe Biden, has positioned themselves to the left of the Democratic establishment. These ‘progressives,’ as they are often labeled, have adopted many of the policy positions that defined Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Medicare for All, $15 minimum wage, tax hikes on the rich, and transformative climate action have become linchpins of many presidential hopefuls’ campaigns. These progressives have closed the gap between the Sanders wing and the Democratic establishment. And though his administration would surely be more committed to bringing these promises to fruition, the Sanders campaign has needed something to clearly separate itself from the rest of the pack. His actions in Iowa are a powerful way of accomplishing this. Standing shoulder to shoulder with striking, minimum wage workers creates an image of Sanders that is distinct amongst the candidates. Even Elizabeth Warren, who has recently surged in Iowa and national polls, and who is usually associated with the more radical side of the party, has not made labor rights a primary feature of her campaign.
The Sanders campaign has called for an “unprecedented grassroots political movement” to solve today’s most critical issues, like climate change, economic and social inequality, and working towards peace in the middle east. Sanders’ campaign strategy reflects this belief. In April, the campaign announced that over a million people had already signed up to volunteer, significantly more than any other campaign. This massive volunteer base, Sanders believes, will allow his campaign to reach the people who have felt neglected by Washington in recent years. This includes the rural farmers in the Midwest and former manufacturing workers in the Rust Belt, but also low wage retail and fast-food workers, who have been left out of Democratic messaging in recent years.
The gap between rich and poor has grown at an incredible pace over the past 40 years. And whereas poor and middle-class people have experienced relatively little change in income, the rich have seen their incomes skyrocket. Until now, Democrats have failed to capitalize on these worrying trends. Instead of advocating on behalf of the growing number of unsatisfied working people, they have stuck to speaking on behalf of the shrinking middle-class.
In a crowded Democratic field, and one filled with many so called ‘progressives,’ Sanders is setting himself apart with a fierce commitment to labor activism and the working poor. No other candidate has been more active in pushing for increased wages and defending labor rights over the past two years, and Sanders is committed to making this a defining feature of his campaign. He is building a ‘bottom-up’ movement, which includes nearly every economic group outside of the ‘1%,’ even those who have not voted in large numbers in the past. If he can convince a large swath of this group to go to the polls this time around, he will have an excellent chance of securing the nomination.