On Monday night, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders hosted a live-streamed town hall with five low-wage workers — one each from Amazon, American Airlines, Disney, McDonald’s, and Walmart. The workers sat on one side of the stage, while on the other idled five empty chairs, each emblazoned with the name of an absent CEO. Sanders had invited the executives to participate in the discussion, but none had agreed.
The arrangement was an effective visual representation of the outrageous inequality that exists in the United States. The ten chairs represented ten people: five workers struggling to make ends meet, and their five indifferent bosses, too preoccupied to bother attending and too powerful to be compelled.
“I guess they didn’t show up,” Sanders said, gesturing to the vacant chairs. “We made a sincere effort, because I think it would’ve been an extraordinary discussion for them to defend the kind of compensation they get in contrast to the people who work for them.” (I crunched the numbers, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos personally made over five hundred times the median Amazon workers’ salary during the length of the broadcast.)
Sanders opened the event by asking workers to describe their working and living conditions. “I work twelve-hour days,” said Heather Hudson, an eleven-year employee of American Airlines. Hudson, who supplements her paycheck with food stamps, described how “humiliating it is to be in the social services line with your coworkers,” adding that “the most disturbing part of all of this is that we work for a company that is extraordinarily successful.”
“We’re understaffed, overworked, and they disrespect us,” said Cynthia Murray, who has worked for Walmart for eighteen years. She spoke of constant harassment by managers and of workers walking an hour to the store because they couldn’t afford a bus ride. One year, she said, the company set out collection boxes for its employees to donate food to each other during the winter holidays. “Workers have to collect food to feed other workers,” reiterated Sanders, “at a company owned by one of the richest families in the world.”
Artemis Bell, a Disney worker for seven years, told Sanders that she makes $11.86 an hour. “How do people live on $11.86 an hour?” he asked. “We don’t really,” she answered. “We just barely make it, even when we have more roommates than we have bedrooms.” Bell told the story of a coworker who died sleeping in her car, after working for Disney six days a week for ten years. Sanders noted that Disney recently gave CEO Bob Iger a $423 million compensation package.
Perhaps it was the ideological framing of the town-hall event — “CEOs vs. Workers” — that explained the executives’ absence. Capitalists prefer to be thought of as valuable job creators and benevolent providers for workers, not their adversaries.
But as the town hall made clear, CEOs do actively undermine their employees’ interests, subjecting them to poverty wages, ever-dwindling benefits, razor-thin job security, unreasonable performance standards, hazardous working conditions, and sabotaged collective-bargaining efforts. When a company contracts out or hires exclusively part-time so they don’t have to provide health care for low-wage employees, that’s CEOs versus workers. When a company puts its profits toward hiring lobbyists to secure tax breaks instead of paying the people whose sweat produced that profit a decent wage, that’s CEOs versus workers.
Some workers think of their fellow workers (immigrants, say) as their competitors. Some even think their boss’s competitor is their competitor, buying the line that what’s good for the employer is good for the employee. But the workers Sanders brought to the stage had a different perspective. They saw the boss as the workers’ real competitor. “I believe it’s time,” said Hudson, “for the company to share those profits with us.”
Capitalism and Class
Sanders’s framing is familiar to socialists, who understand capitalism as a system that pits different classes against each other. Bosses try to squeeze as much labor from their workers for the cheapest price possible, while workers try — with varying degrees of coordination and success — to secure a decent living by forcing concessions from the capitalist class.
Socialists see this conflict not as an unfortunate accident, but as an inherent feature of capitalism. While all people may be theoretically created equal, under capitalism some of them have money or land or factories, and others don’t. The have-nots must sell their labor to the haves to survive.
Since this arrangement puts workers in competition with each other for jobs and artificially scarce resources, it creates a race to the bottom. Workers accept worsening pay and conditions because they need to sell their labor in order to keep a roof over their head or feed their kids. Capitalists take advantage of this desperation by paying unlivable wages, slashing benefits, and so on — all of which helps their bottom line. This makes workers even more desperate, which gives capitalists even more leverage to exploit workers, resulting in a constant transfer of wealth to the top and the unconscionable material inequality that we see today.
It’s not that bosses are personally mean, or bad apples. Some bosses are cruel, and some are kind. What unites them all is that they are all disciplined by the needs of the company. And companies need one thing: profit.
In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck likened a bank or a company to a monster. “The monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die,” he wrote. “When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.” This is one of capitalism’s unique features: every economic actor is disciplined by and subservient to the logic of the market, its dictates of competition and profit maximization. If companies don’t keep making a profit, they will be edged out of existence by other companies. And the most surefire way to turn a profit is to cut labor costs, via all of the means that the Amazon, American Airlines, Disney, McDonald’s, and Walmart workers described during Bernie Sanders’s town hall.
This is why socialists believe capitalism can never provide a decent life for all people. We must instead defy the dictates of the market and reorder society around human need, not private profit.
“People in a Sense Are Disposable”
Halfway through the town hall, Bernie Sanders showed a video that began with a clip of Jeff Bezos discussing his own personal fortune, saying, “The only way I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.”
It was blood-boiling, especially after Amazon worker Seth King had just described his experience working in the warehouses where Bezos’s profits are generated. King said he was initially attracted to Amazon by some enticing employee perks, but he quickly learned that the company’s business model is predicated on burning workers out before they ever get to enjoy them.
“It’s a revolving door of bodies that they’re throwing at the floor,” King said. “Ten hours for four days straight, walking, not allowed to sit down.” He described a working environment in which employees were not allowed to talk to each other, and where every movement is tracked and worker performance is measured daily against impossible standards. King, a young Navy veteran, said he always fell at least 20 percent short of his mark, even on days where he felt his performance was high.
“The environment is very isolated and depressing,” he said, noting that this workplace had no windows. King held another job to supplement his Amazon job, leaving him with one free day a week, which he spent sleeping. He described reaching a breaking point and asking himself, “If this is the best my life is going to get, why am I still here?” His suicidal thoughts eventually drove him to leave Amazon. “There’s no work environment that should make you feel like that,” he said.
After a quiet moment, Sanders added, “And this is a company owned by a person whose wealth increases $275 million every single day.”
“People in a sense are disposable,” Sanders said. “We work somebody to the point of no return, and we get rid of them and get somebody else in. It’s not a culture where people are respected, are nourished. We have to ask ourselves if that’s the kind of economic culture we are comfortable with. And I think most Americans are not.”
The moment captured Sanders’s greatest contribution to American politics. Of all the country’s politicians or household names of any stripe, he is far and away the most committed to highlighting the conflict between classes.
To go beyond the competitive drives of capitalism and move toward socialism, millions of people will have to become engaged in class-conscious struggle throughout all spheres of society. Understanding that classes do not coexist in harmony — that there is already a class war underway and the only choice that remains is whether to fight back in it — is at the heart of class consciousness. One of the primary tasks of socialists is to bring people into contact with this very idea.
We live in a time of ruthless domination and subjection from above and disordered and threadbare opposition from below. But it’s a heartening sign that the most popular politician in America is seeking to popularize the idea of class conflict — and that millions of people are listening.