DETROIT -- U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Wednesday criticized General Motors and other large corporations for greedy business practices, specifically calling out lucrative executive pay packages while cutting health care benefits for rank-and-file employees.
The Vermont senator, an independent running for the Democratic presidential nomination, briefly walking a picket line with striking United Auto Workers members outside of the company's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant. Workers at the plant are among the 48,000 UAW members that have been on strike since Sept. 16, after negotiators failed to reach a tentative deal before their labor contract expired on Sept. 14.
Standing across the street from a large inflatable cat with a cigar in its month and signs that read "Shame on General Motors" and "Shame on million dollar $$ Mary $$," referencing GM CEO Mary Barra, Sanders thanked the union members for striking the automaker.
"I am here today to thank you for having the courage to stand up to corporate greed," he said. "All over this country, working people are sick and tired of working two or three jobs, seeing their health care benefits go down, seeing their wages go down and seeing the CEOs paid huge compensation packages."
Sanders also decried GM for its production in Mexico, gap between worker and executive pay and plans to idle up to four U.S. plants, including Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly. The GM picket lines have become a popular campaign stop.
Democratic candidates former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Beto O'Rourke of Texas and Sen. Elizabeth Warren all made stops over the last week. The candidates have used the strike as a backdrop to their presidential runs, supporting the UAW and its workers while condemning GM.
GM, in response to Sanders' comments, referred to a Tuesday statement about other candidates criticizing the company: "Criticism about the wages and benefits GM pays is unwarranted. The total compensation of our UAW workforce – including wages, profit sharing and benefits – is the highest in the U.S. auto industry."
GM in fact has distributed record profit-sharing checks to UAW members in recent years and members retain a golden health-care plan that has workers paying only 3% of their out-of-pocket costs. That compares with 28% for the average U.S. worker, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
UAW Region 1 Director Frank Stuglin, whose jurisdiction includes the plant in Detroit, said the support from all the political candidates has been "really good, especially when they walk the picket line with us."
Regarding the length on the strike – now the longest national strike against GM since 1970 – Stuglin said the union's 48,000 members with GM are ready to remain on the picket lines for as long as it takes for a fair deal.
"It's however long GM wants to go for because they've got to come to the table and pony-up," Stuglin said, declining to comment on what impasses remain in the negotiations. "We're going to last one day longer than they can."
GM shares Wednesday afternoon were slightly up after opening at $36.76. The stock is down about 5% since closing at $38.86 on Sept. 13, the Friday before the strike began.