CAMBRIDGE — At a pro-union rally that drew thousands to Cambridge Common Sunday afternoon, US Senator Bernie Sanders urged attendees to get involved in unions to “take back this country” from “corporate greed,” which he said has usurped politics, the economy, and the media.
“The billionaires have the money, we have the people,” said Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, to resounding applause in the 90-degree heat. “We are not strong unless we are organized ... and at the center of that has to be, must be, a strong trade union movement.”
The event was one of several Sanders has held nationwide to promote organized labor alongside prominent organizers Sean O’Brien, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. Sanders, O’Brien, and Nelson spoke in Philadelphia Saturday and in Chicago in June.
The rally featured local unions prior to Sanders’ address, including representatives from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s graduate student union, the St. Vincent Hospital nurses union, and the Starbucks on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Workers from the Starbucks union have been on strike 24/7 since July — the longest in company history, prompting a visit from Sanders to their picket line Sunday morning.
In his remarks, O’Brien directly named Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as one of several corporate leaders who “need a beating” by way of organized strikes.
“They need to know what it feels like to be pushed around by [the] schoolyard bully that they are. They need to understand that they’re only successful because of their workers on the front lines,” O’Brien said.
A Starbucks spokesperson said in an e-mail late Sunday afternoon that, “Starbucks has great partners and we value their contributions. We respect our partners’ right to engage in any legally protected activity or protest without retaliation.”
During his address, Sanders doubled-down on messaging reminiscent of his two presidential campaigns. He argued that families should not have to continue living paycheck-to-paycheck, as he said his own did while he was growing up, and lambasted billionaires and corporations for buying political power.
“These vultures — I’m going to control my vocabulary here a little bit — but these vultures are putting billions of dollars into campaigns to elect people who will pony to them and to defeat candidates who stand for working families,” Sanders said.
He said those in power have perpetuated problems including high health care costs, student loan debt, and a “dysfunctional childcare system.” Sanders also briefly referenced Boston’s housing crisis after hearing in a meeting with local officials that rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Boston can cost $3,000.
“How the hell do you survive if you pay $3,000 for a small apartment?” Sanders asked the crowd. “Don’t tell me we cannot build the affordable and low-income housing, don’t tell me we can’t have rent control.”
State Representative Mike Connolly, a Democrat whose district includes Cambridge, told the Globe that he talked to Sanders about Boston’s high rents and Sanders responded “in disbelief.”
“[On] these issues — whether it’s housing, whether it’s the cost of health care, whether it’s child care — the 99 percent of us are just getting slaughtered, and it’s really up to us in government to make the system work in a fair way,” Connolly said after the rally.
In his final remarks, Sanders echoed previous speakers’ calls for solidarity, urging people to unionize and show support for others. “What we are saying today is, we are in this together,” he said.
The crowd was a mix of Sanders supporters and people who came out to support Greater Boston unions. Many donned “Bernie 2020″ and “Bernie 2016″ campaign buttons and expressed interest in seeing Sanders run again.
Karen Lourence, a nurse and longtime union member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said she came to the rally with her husband and son to support St. Vincent hospital nurses, as someone who visited their picket line weekly last year during the longest nurses strike in Massachusetts history.
“[Sanders] understands that we need to make some changes to benefit all Americans as people who live in this country, to have better health care, education, in a balanced way,” said Lourence, 62.
Adam Gould, 17, who volunteered with Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, said that he has long supported union work, as someone whose mother and grandparents both participated in unions. He said he believes Sanders’ remarks reflected young people’s priorities.
“It’s important that we have someone in the next election where young people can come out and vote for something, not against something else,” Gould said. “What motivates me to do stuff is to envision a future like Senator Sanders was saying — a future where people have health care, jobs that are secure, that pay a fair wage. I want a president who will fight for that.”
Anjali Huynh was a Globe intern in 2022.Follow her on Twitter @anjalihuynh.