Amid a growing, revitalized labor movement in Philadelphia, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is rallying with union leaders in the city on Saturday, to support workers demanding better pay and working conditions.
In an interview with WHYY News, Sanders shared the rally’s message: “The time is now for working people to stand up, organize, and fight for their rights, and take on very powerful special interests who think this country belongs just to them.”
The rally, at Independence Hall Visitor Center, follows a surge of historic labor wins at Amazon, Starbucks, and in small businesses in Philadelphia, especially coffee shops. Five Philadelphia Starbucks have unionized, and service workers just formed Local 80, a union within Workers United that is planning to organize small coffee shops across the city.
And another local union is fighting on Saturday: School District of Philadelphia workers of Local 32BJ voted to authorize a strike — one week before students are set to return for the fall. An estimated 2,000 union members — bus drivers, mechanics, building cleaners and engineers — say their demands for fair pay and training from the district have not been met.
Sean O’Brien, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, will join Sanders in Philadelphia. Organizers with Philadelphia’s branch of Workers United were also invited to speak.
Lily Fender, 31, who works at Korshak Bagels in South Philadelphia, and played a large role in its unionization, was invited to meet with Sanders and other labor organizers this Saturday. “Workers are going to change the service industry, not one boss or a handful of bosses,” Fender said. “It’s going to be a mass movement of workers demanding better quality of life and better working conditions.”
They said they want more support for unions in small, locally-owned businesses.
“There’s this kind of friction around small businesses not needing to be organized because, ‘We’re all one family here and everybody gets treated great.’ But that’s just not true … I really would love for [Sanders] to say, ‘all jobs need to be union jobs.’”
Sanders told WHYY News that workers forming unions is “imperative” to move the country forward and he wants it to be easier to do so.
Nelson, of AFA, said it’s “strategic” for the labor movement to support organizing in coffee shops, since those are the places where community members gather.
“Big or small, workers need a union,” Nelson said. “And frankly, the businesses are better served when they have them there.”
Colton Chatrian, an organizer with Starbucks who was invited to speak at Saturday’s rally, said he wants Sanders to know that “this is just the beginning,” for Starbucks workers in Philadelphia, “The main goal is to reach each and every Starbucks in the city.”
Sanders said his mission is to bring “workers together, regardless of their political affiliation.”
“When you look at the issues facing working people,” Sanders said, “it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or Republican or an independent. Can you afford health care? ‘No, I can’t.’”
Fender said it seems that many of their coworkers have given up on electoral politics.
“A lot of my coworkers are like, ‘f that, those people don’t represent me,” they said. “They only care about corporate interests … and all I have is fighting at my workplace.’”
In response to this disappointment in the Democratic party, Sanders said “despair is not an option.”
“If you don’t stand up and fight back,” he added, “the situation only gets worse.”
History shows us, he said, that “real structural change” doesn’t happen overnight — and it doesn’t come from the top.
“It happens from grassroots activism.”
Sanders said he also believes it’s possible for national labor unions to shift away from underneath the democratic arm to a more worker-led structure.
“I mean, I believe in grassroots activism. And when people at the grassroots level, whether they are trade unionists or anybody else, speak up, either the leaders follow or they’re going to have to get out of the way.”
The rally, outside the Independence Hall Visitor Center, starts at 3 p.m. and is open to the public. It will be livestreamed on Sanders’ social media accounts.