Sanders seizes 2020 megaphone to attack companies over minimum wage

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersButtigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' Buttigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' The generational divide of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party MORE (I-Vt.) is using his 2020 campaign bully pulpit to target companies from Walmart to McDonald’s as he pursues a long-standing goal: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The 2020 hopeful has made raising the minimum wage a core theme of his 2020 run, one that encapsulates his fight against income inequality and "corporate greed" but also exposes him to strong pushback by businesses and conservatives.

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Sanders appeared before Walmart shareholders this week to push for a $15 minimum wage, and he is set to rally on Sunday with McDonald’s workers in Iowa demanding higher wages. 

"Despite the incredible wealth of its owner, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages, wages that are so low that many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and public housing in order to survive," Sanders said to Walmart shareholders.

"Walmart can afford to pay its employees a living wage of at least $15 an hour, and that is not a radical idea,” he also said.

Most of the crowded field of Democratic contenders vying to be president, including Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJulián Castro defends going on Fox: I'm focused on 'the people out there watching' Julián Castro defends going on Fox: I'm focused on 'the people out there watching' O'Rourke unveils plan to support women, minority-owned businesses MORE (Mass.) and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenButtigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' Buttigieg on Biden's Iraq War vote: 'that vote was a mistake' Ocasio-Cortez starts petition to repeal Hyde Amendment MORE, also support more than doubling the federal minimum wage from its current rate of $7.25, which hasn't changed since 2009.

But Sanders has been especially vocal in pushing for the higher wage, a move that is likely to yield political dividends by bolstering his support among low-income workers and union members who support higher pay.

His push comes as legislation he has aggressively pushed has failed to make any headway in the Republican-held Senate.

The $15 minimum wage has also failed to gain much traction in the Democratic-led House, amid some opposition from lawmakers about its potential economic impact.

A bill, introduced by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottTop Trump health official warned against controversial ObamaCare changes in private memo Top Trump health official warned against controversial ObamaCare changes in private memo Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage push MORE (D-Va.), has 205 co-sponsors, all Democrats, but has yet to progress since it was voted out of committee.

Now, Sanders is taking advantage of his 2020 megaphone to look beyond the legislative process, adopting a company-by-company approach to make his minimum wage goal a reality.

He's notched some successes already. In October, Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, and Sanders urged other companies to follow suit, tweeting that the move by the online retailing giant “could well be a shot heard around the world.” 

Other companies that have agreed to roll out a $15 minimum wage include Costco, Target and Disney. 

Meanwhile, Walmart rejected Sanders's proposal for a $15 minimum wage, but CEO Doug McMillon called on Congress to raise the $7.25 federal minimum wage at the retailer’s annual shareholders meeting. Walmart has gradually raised its pay for workers to $11 an hour.  

Sanders is set to rally with McDonald’s workers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, this weekend as they demand a $15 minimum wage. He will also lead a march to the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Celebration, his campaign said.

The push to raise wages is likely to resonate among many liberals.

Polls have generally shown support for a $15 minimum wage, especially among Democrats, and a number of blue states, including New York, have passed legislation that will phase in pay increases for its workers.

Yet whether Sanders's aggressive push will pay off for him remains uncertain. Sanders was widely seen as one of the front-runners this year after his insurgent nomination run against former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHouse Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally House Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally It's about the delegates, stupid MORE in 2016. 

But he has fallen behind in the polls against Biden, whose campaign started strong but is now facing pushback over some of his centrist stances, including his initial support for a federal ban on funding for certain abortion services, which he then reversed just a day later after strong liberal pushback.

Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, is also fighting tooth and nail for the support of union members against Warren, Biden and other 2020 contenders.

Biden's campaign was boosted by an early endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters, which became the first major labor union to throw its support behind a candidate in the 2020 race.

The aggressive push for a higher minimum wage could also lead to strong pushback in the general election should Sanders emerge as the Democratic nominee.

Analysts have been split about the impact of a $15 minimum wage, which helps lift people out of poverty but also raises concerns about potential job losses.

Critics of raising the minimum wage too drastically have also noted the adverse impact on small businesses, including individual franchise owners of fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's.

Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told The Hill that Sanders was simplifying a complex issue as "a simple transfer from corporate profits to less well-paid workers."

The reality is more complicated, Schweitzer noted.

“If we simply raise the minimum wage, it’s not as if we’re just transferring money from corporate to the worker; we are going to make the cost-effectiveness of hiring a worker less," he said.

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Some strategists also warn that Sanders's sharp rhetoric against “corporate greed” could turn off some of the more moderate voters he will need to win the White House.

Already, Sanders is facing strong opposition from some businesses and Republicans, who relish the prospect of painting the Democratic field as socialists and would likely have strong ammunition against somebody with a longstanding liberal record such as the Vermont senator.

“Sen. Sanders and the other presidential candidates are certainly free to speak on any issue they want to whoever they want," said Stephen Worley, senior director of communications at the International Franchise Association, a group that represents franchise businesses. 

"A more effective approach to increasing worker wages, however, would focus on supporting policies that allow for economic growth rather than criticizing companies who can’t do what is being asked of them,” he added.

Meanwhile, Hal Lambert, a GOP strategist, accused the senator of grandstanding and said Sanders “knows nothing about running a business,” a likely line of attack during a general election. 

“His push for a higher minimum wage isn’t based on anything other than political theater for the media attention he so desperately loves,” Lambert said.

Such attacks are unlikely to sway Sanders. The senator continues to frequently back striking workers, from supermarket chain Stop & Shop to media company Vox.

And he has made Walmart a special target, including directly attacking the company in his official campaign launch in Brooklyn earlier this year.

This week, he went after the Waltons, who founded Walmart and are among the country's wealthiest families.

"The greed at Walmart and throughout corporate America is destroying the social and economic fabric of America, and it needs to stop," Sanders said.