Bernie Sanders is holding a get-together tonight (July 16), but he’s still waiting for a few RSVPs.
Sanders, the relentless independent and leftist senator from Vermont, and a former presidential candidate who is expected to run again in the 2020 election, will live-stream via Facebook a town hall he has dubbed “CEOs vs Workers.” It will focus on pay, featuring some eye-popping chasms between CEO and rank-and-file salaries at the likes of Amazon, Disney, American Airlines, McDonald’s, and Walmart.
But while Sanders has extended invites to representatives of both sides for the debate, he has yet to hear from any of the powerful CEOs.
Sanders doggedly attacked income inequality during his failed 2016 presidential bid, and his battle has barely slowed since. On Facebook, he publishes a “Faces of Greed” video series, documenting the gap between corporate and political leaders and the average American. Writing in the Guardian earlier this year, he took specific aim at Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who is worth more than $100 billion:
He owns at least four mansions, together worth many tens of millions of dollars. As if that weren’t enough, he is spending $42m on the construction of a clock inside a mountain in Texas that will supposedly run for 10,000 years. But, in Amazon warehouses across the country, his employees often work long, gruelling hours and earn wages so low they rely on Medicaid, food stamps and public housing paid for by US taxpayers.
Recently Sanders also turned up at a union rally in Anaheim, California, where he criticized local employment giant Walt Disney Co. for paying employees less than a living wage while CEO Bob Iger is expected to take home more than $400 million over the next four years.
CEO salaries have soared over the past few decades. Research from the AFL-CIO says that in 2015, the heads of S&P 500 companies earned 361 times more than average employees. That ratio was 41-to-1 in 1983.
To be fair, some CEOs have begun fixing, to some degree, the wealth gap within companies. For example, when Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini discovered that some of the lowest-paid employees at the health insurer could not afford the company’s own health plan for dependents, and some needed to supplement their income with food stamps, he made a point of raising their pay substantially, despite pushback from the company’s finance executives.
Walmart, meanwhile, began raising wages for its store employees in 2015, and bumped the base pay to $10 per hour in 2016, up from the minimum wage of $7.25 they earned before. In 2018, the minimum for store employees was raised to $11 per hour.
As Quartz’s Oliver Staley has reported, that step up can make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. Citing research from the Economic Policy Institute, he writes, “For a full-time worker making $10 an hour, another $1 an hour means an extra $2,080 a year, or the equivalent of three months of transportation costs or five months of food for the average low income household.”
Sanders and many of his supporters back a movement to install a $15-per-hour minimum wage for any full-time worker in the US.
The “Bern,” who caucuses with the Democratic party, wants to prove to Americans that progressive leaders care about the personal plights of average workers—a position he told The New Yorker that US president Donald Trump was smart to take in the run-up to the 2016 election. “He said, ‘Hey, I hear you. I’m going to do something for you,'” Sanders offered. “And he lied.”
Quartz has reached out to the companies he plans to call out during the town hall. A spokesperson for Amazon responded in an email stating, “We encourage anyone to compare our pay and benefits to other retailers. Amazon is proud to have created over 130,000 new jobs last year alone. These are good jobs with highly competitive pay and full benefits. In the U.S., the average hourly wage for a full-time associate in our fulfillment centers, including cash, stock, and incentive bonuses, is over $15/hour before overtime.”
We will update this post with any other responses.
The event will be live-streamed on Sanders’ Facebook page at 7 pm US eastern time.