CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — Backed by workers seeking a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Senator Bernie Sanders took on political corruption, forgiveness of student debt, increased teacher pay, inaction on climate change and America’s vast income inequality in a Sunday 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% 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 an hour. South Carolina’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the same as the federal minimum wage.
A single mother of three who came to hear Sanders said she’s not able to make ends meet with her part-time minimum-wage job at McDonald’s.
“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.
Hezzy, 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,” Hezzy 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.”
The audience erupted in cheers when he announced his plan to excuse college loan debts and his quest for free tuition at public colleges.
“Anyone in the U.S. should be able to get a higher education,” Sanders said. “If Sweden, Germany and other Scandinavian countries can do it, so can we. California, Tennessee and New York, these states are moving toward providing free tuitions.”
If the government can bail out the “Wall Street billionaires whose illegal actions sent the country into a recession,” Sanders said, it could just as easily cancel student loan debt.
He moved on to denounce the multibillion-dollar private, profit-seeking prison system, which he called racist and broken.
“We have twice as many people incarcerated in America as they do in China, and China is a communistic state with a population of 1.3 billion people,” Sanders said. “If I’m so lucky to be elected president, I will end cash bail. There are 400,000 people in jail right now across the country who have not been convicted of anything — they just can’t afford bail.”
He called for global action to fight climate change by weaning the world off fossil fuels.
“We have a president who thinks climate change is a hoax. We should invite him to Charleston; you know the effects of climate change,” he said, a reference to recent Hurricane Dorian, and the frequent street floods in downtown Charleston during high tides.
He wrapped up his address with the topic that has dominated the Democratic primary debates — health care reform and his drive for a system called Medicare for all.
Political science major Bill Haller said he came to hear Sanders to see what, if anything, sets him apart from the other candidates.
“In a previous debate he was trying to make a clear distinction from Elizabeth Warren by saying he was the only one on stage who voted No to President Trump’s military expansion three times,” Haller aid. “I wanted to hear more of what makes him different than the other Democrats.”
Sophomore Mollie Pate said she wanted to learn more about Sanders policy plans.
“I support Bernie because he is the most consistent candidate. He has a firm record,” she said.