PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Fresh off upset victories in Wisconsin and Michigan, Sen. Bernie Sanders visited Pennsylvania on Wednesday and Thursday hoping to make up ground in the polls ahead of the state’s April 26 primary.
Speaking at the AFL-CIO convention at the Sheraton Downtown Philadelphia Hotel on Thursday morning, the U.S. senator from Vermont adopted a markedly quieter tone than he displayed the night before at Temple University, where he excoriated Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton before a crowd of 14,000 on issues ranging from her taking campaign contributions from Wall Street to her voting for the war in Iraq when she was in the U.S. Senate.
In contrast, his speech to the union members almost understated. Knowing full well that Clinton had addressed the same group a day earlier, Sanders wasted no time in reminding the crowd know that he, too, was a friend of the labor movement.
“You’ve been responsible for creating the American middle class, and I thank you for that,” he said.
His remarks included a pledge to make it easier for people to approve a union in their workplace.
“Fifty percent plus one in a bargaining unit signs a card, we’ve got a union,” he said.
The convention is a forum held every other year to foster discussion and share information on wages, benefits and other topics relevant to union members.
Although Sanders’ audience was smaller than Clinton’s had been the previous day, his supporters made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers.
Sanders, who has won seven of the last eight Democratic contests, bounded onstage to raucous support from the union delegates who turned out to see him close out the three-day convention.
Where Clinton’s crowd was composed, Sanders received a welcome befitting an athlete or a rock star, with chants of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” reverberating throughout the crowd as he entered.
The audience stayed involved as the Senator spoke. He drew particularly loud cheers when he mentioned his vows to raise minimum wage to $15 an hour and provide free college education and healthcare for all Americans, promises that, while controversial to some, have been the backbone of his campaign.
Philadelphia attorney Frank Rothermel, who introduced himself as a “lawyer for Bernie,” said he believes Sanders’ proposals are necessary steps to rebuilding a thriving middle class.
Rothermel spoke about his own labor union roots, and how by earning a union wage of $11.42 an hour in the 1980s, he was able to put himself through college.
“I couldn’t make it in today’s economy,” he said.
“I know this – [Bernie’s] not going to stop fighting,” he said, though he predicted Clinton would take the Democratic nomination on the strength of superdelegates.
The latest polls for Pennsylvania shows Sanders dramatically closing the gap between himself and the Democratic frontrunner. Where Clinton led the race in Pennsylvania by 38 percent just over a month ago, the latest Quinnipiac poll has her up only by 6 percent.
With recent polling numbers showing him lagging behind in Pennsylvania by as few as six points and as many as twenty-two, Sanders spent the day stumping for last-minute support from union members as the state’s April 26 primary draws nearer.
Though he avoided taking shots at political foes in either party during his early morning remarks, the senator didn’t fail to mention his lack of corporate campaign donors or powerful political action committees, reminding the crowd he is the only candidate without one.
“I will not leave here this morning and go to a Wall Street fundraiser; I’ll not be hustling money from [corporations],” he told the approving crowd in a not-so-veiled swipe at Clinton.
Sanders also cited his 98 percent record of voting in favor of union-supporting measures in Congress as evidence of his loyalty to the union rank-and-file union. He drew rueful laughs when he added that he’s still not convinced he was wrong about the remaining 2 percent of those votes.
However, Sanders’ tone became grave when he talked about the challenges facing the working class.
Much of his 37 minute speech was devoted to the topic of wage and income inequality, a subject he’s been widely credited with bringing to the forefront of the national debate.
Illustrating his points with animated facial expressions and emphatic hand gestures, Sanders laid into what he called a “rigged economy,” blaming it for a recent “massive redistribution of wealth” wherein the rich get richer and the middle class struggle to stay afloat.
“The great middle class, once the envy of the entire world, has been disappearing,” the Senator said. “Almost all new income and wealth are going to the top 1 percent.”
The crowd, which cheered each time Sanders expressed solidarity with the working class, fell into stony silence when he told them the twenty richest people in America now own more wealth than half of all their fellow citizens.
Sanders offered a number of proposals to address these problems. Taxing Wall Street’s conglomerates and “eliminating corporate loopholes” that allow tax breaks to multibillionaire businesses would create the funding needed to rebuild the middle class with free college and healthcare, he said.
“We have to ask ourselves whether it is acceptable that so few have so much, and so many have so little,” the senator said.
Wall Street was quick to turn to the American public when they needed a financial bailout eight years ago, Sanders said, “Now it is their turn to help out working families”.
The Senator also addressed the common criticism that he’s “thinking too big” and that his plans are too outrageous, too pricey to work.
“If it’s radical to … rebuild our infrastructure and [create billions of jobs],” then you can call me radical,” he said as the room erupted in cheers.
Not everyone in the crowd was convinced, though. Attorney Greg Boles, who authored a guide to employee benefits called “The Wounded Worker,” said Sanders overestimates the benefits of his plans and underestimates the cost.
Boles, a Clinton supporter, said that while Bernie’s program is well-intentioned, it is ultimately based on “crackpot economics” and is way too expensive to succeed.
But Sanders insisted it was possible, telling the audience that many current universally accepted ideas once seemed radical.
Historically, he said, “[change] has happened because people…fought for it. So don’t tell me that we cannot transform this country. It can happen if we are prepared to stand up and fight for it.”
Many in the crowd found his message empowering.
“He’s speaking our issues,” said Zach Hause, an AFL-CIO delegate from Scranton.
Before leaving the stage, Sanders asked attendees to “think outside the box” and to embrace the ideals that form his “grassroots movement.”
“I ask everybody here again – please do not accept the status quo,” he said.
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