CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — Backed by workers seeking a $15 an hour minimum wage, Sen. Bernie Sanders on Sunday took on political corruption, forgiveness of student debt, increased teacher pay, inaction on climate change and America’s vast income inequality in an address at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.
An enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd of around 500, mostly college students, packed the college gym. The College of Charleston has hosted its Bully Pulpit series since 2008. Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, was the fourth presidential candidate featured this year.
“The top 1% [of Americans] own more wealth in this country than the bottom 90% combined,” Sanders said. “Our economy is grossly unfair.”
He attributed that in part to the fact that “the top 1% contribute hundreds of millions of dollars into campaigns creating a corrupt political system.”
He said gross inequality of income is seldom an issue on broadcast news because the television networks are owned by members of the 1% — an interesting riposte to President Donald Trump’s near-daily lament that the TV networks are too “liberal.”
History major Olivia Levins, who attended the event, said she’s a Sanders supporter precisely because he’s willing to call out big corporations.
Sanders called to the stage two members of the Fight for $15 organization to explain their plight. The group of more than 1,000 low-wage workers in South Carolina was formed in 2016, seeking the right to unionize and demand a minimum wage of $15/hour. South Carolina’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the same as the federal minimum wage.
A single mother of three who works at McDonald’s came to hear Sanders said she’s not able to make ends meet with her part-time minimum-wage job.
“I can’t afford child care so I can only afford to work part-time. After taxes it’s more like I make $3 to $4 per hour,” said the single mom, who identified herself as Tine.
Hezzie, who earns $8.25 at McDonald’s, said he supports unionizing the fast-food industry, which is not only low-paying, but replete with incidents involving sexual harassment. (The Courthouse News database contains more than 380 lawsuits against McDonald’s alone, alleging sexual harassment.)
“If we had unions, employees could be trained about proper work protocol and procedures,” Hezzie said, reflecting what Sanders said from the stage: “We need reform that works for all of us, not just for the wealthy 1%. If people are working 40 hours a week, they should be making more than a starvation wage.”