The 99% Versus Wall Street: Stephen Lerner on How We Can Mobilize To Be the Greedy 1%’s Worst Nightmare
This interview by Sarah Jaffe was originally posted on AlterNet on December 22, 2011
Earlier this year, long before Occupy Wall Street turned Zuccotti Park into Liberty Plaza, Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer with SEIU and mastermind of the Justice for Janitors campaign, wrote in New Labor Forum of “large-scale sit-ins, occupations, and other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience that must inevitably overcome court injunctions and political pressures.”
After the financial crash, Lerner headed up SEIU’s banking and finance project, organizing labor and community groups to fight predatory lending and other abusive practices by the banks. He has also been targeted by Glenn Beck for proposing debt strikes as a form of collective bargaining for homeowners and other debtors. Beck called him an “economic terrorist,” and he received death threats.
In a year when labor and working people became the focus for political protest in the U.S. and around the world — when a new slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent” captured news headlines and changed the way Americans talk about income inequality — Lerner’s words seem prescient. So who better than Lerner to discuss the year that was, the present situation, and the future of Occupy? AlterNet recently caught up with Lerner to talk about the targeting of Wall Street, debt strikes, organizing in America, and much more.
Sarah Jaffe: Reading your article at New Labor Forum, It does seem like you sort of predicted Occupy. How did you feel when it all started?
Stephen Lerner: I don’t know if I’d say I predicted it. A lot of us have been trying to figure out for a long time how we get out of the trap we’re in –we’ve been doing the same thing for a long time and it hasn’t been working.
But it’s an exciting feeling to see something a lot of people spent a lifetime hoping for –this kind of dramatic increase in activity that targets financial capital, those who really control the country.
The Justice for Janitors campaign was a campaign where the traditional way of organizing wouldn’t work, so we had to do something totally different. We organized people that everybody said were unorganizable–part-time, subcontracted, often undocumented workers.
There were many reasons why I think it worked, but one of them was that we had an analysis of who had power. In addition to the community organizing and the many different things the campaign did, the strikes and sit-ins, none of that would’ve worked if we hadn’t directed the campaign toward those with the greatest power—the people who controlled the real estate that janitors were cleaning.
The Janitors campaign was ahead of its time, or maybe another way to look at it is that it captured many tactics and strategies from the past and put them in one campaign. We combined the idea of rights at work, the rights of immigrants, race, the way we talk about inequality into a campaign that captured the idea of the poorest workers trying to win justice from the very richest people. We both won public support and had a strategy to lift people out of poverty.
We ran, starting in 2007 for a number of years, a campaign focused on private equity. It has been a growing part of how capital is organized. Workers and other organizations have to learn how to organize around it.
Similar to the ideas behind Justice for Janitors, we campaigned to pressure private equity companies, which are now six of the 10 largest employers in the country, to take responsibility for the companies they own and how they pay and treat their workers.
In the labor movement, as I wrote in the New Labor Forum article, we are constrained by the way we’re intertwined with the very people who are in charge of the economy. It’s not a criticism, it’s a reality. So Occupy has emerged as a third force, which has identified both who the bad guys are: Wall Street. Simultaneously, because it doesn’t have ties with them, it can go at them in a more direct way that has captured the popular imagination. They’re not constrained by historical relationships.
SJ: You wrote “unions are just big enough—and just connected enough to the political and economic power structure—to be constrained from leading the kinds of activities that are needed.”
SL: When I stress that this is the importance of Occupy, it’s not a criticism of unions to say that they live in the real world. That’s part of unions’ strength, and they’re winning real benefits and protecting members. That’s why we need something like Occupy that can do the things that unions haven’t been able to do in recent years.
You know, when you look back to the first organizing of the CIO, the sit-down strikes, they partly were able to do that because they had nothing to lose. It’s hard to imagine unions taking a similar level of risk right now because the very success of unions means that there are pension funds and buildings and assets to protect and a legal system that has dramatic penalties if campaigns have a real economic impact on corporations.
So what’s incredibly exciting is to go from the theory–there’s so many problems in the country, so many people are dissatisfied with what we have that we need something new, and it wouldn’t look like what we currently had. I guess you could say Occupy is sort of theory and practice meeting.
SJ: You mentioned the sit-down strikes and the old tactics of the radical labor movement that we haven’t seen in a while. And while unions do have a lot to protect, they’ve also been losing a lot of ground. The “Protect the ground you have” strategy hasn’t necessarily helped. As somebody who led one of the more radical labor actions of the last couple of decades, do you have some thoughts about that?
SL: It is a failed strategy—which I think most in the labor movement accept–to define your work and your plans and your strategy by defending a declining base. What I’m saying isn’t new, it’s been core to a lot of people’s thinking — that unions have become isolated islands.
The hard part is, what is a winning strategy? I think a key part of the winning strategy is a deep understanding of how the economy is transforming, figuring out how to engage and challenge those who are really dominating the economy.
On the Janitors campaign, we didn’t say this was a war with the cleaning contractor, we said this was a war with the people who control the industry. I think a big problem for a lot of us in the labor movement is that we’re ending up fighting the middleman, we’re fighting people who don’t have that much power instead of engaging those who are really controlling the economy.
SJ: Another thing you said in the article was that on the janitors’ campaign, your wins came when the whole community saw it as something that was about them, beyond the specific workers you were trying to organize.
SL: I’ll never forget in the 1990s, during the Century City police riot, when the police attacked strikers in Century City, one of the things that people in the Latino community again and again said is that “The police beat us up again and again in private; this is the first time that it was on film.”
The reason that people reacted, that there was such incredible support for the union after the police riot, is not that people became pro-union or cared for the wages of janitors, it’s that it became symbolic of how Latinos felt they were treated.
Where we had campaigns that have captured people’s imagination about the demands and needs of those workers, we become enmeshed with what people are feeling more broadly about the loss of wealth and power.
Everybody knows they’re getting zapped by banks, and what’s so good about Occupy is that it’s put that front and center. The fact that they were in Wall Street, I think everybody forgets. It was not Occupy a park somewhere, it was the fact that it was in the middle of the financial district. And I think on an intuitive level, people all over the political spectrum understand that those guys are at the center of how the economy is organized in a way that doesn’t work for most people.
SJ: It’s interesting because, again, a lot of people who consider themselves middle-class probably don’t think about standing in solidarity with janitors. But the 99 percent statement includes the janitors, includes teachers, includes kids graduating from college $60,000 in debt, includes literally everyone but the people at the very top. Do you think we’re seeing a new kind of class consciousness in this country?
SL: That is the brilliance of it, I think it captures so vividly how the country is divided.
If it had been rolled out as a result of polling or focus groups, I don’t think it would’ve caught on the same way as “We Are the 99 Percent” linked in people’s minds with people bravely and heroically doing something about “We Are the 99 Percent.”
I would say that is a really important point — that folks got arrested, were filmed, got pepper-sprayed, the attacks on people in New York City — all of that brought it to life in the same way that the Civil Rights movement, the sit-ins at the lunch counters did. It wasn’t that people hadn’t been saying for years, Jim Crow and segregation were wrong, it was the image of people being attacked for saying it..
I think there’s been something brewing under the surface for a while. More and more people are disaffected, folks don’t know quite where to put their anger and their energy. Some people go to the right, some people embrace scapegoating, but what’s so beautiful about this is it’s not just “We are the 99 percent, it’s “We are the 99 percent and there’s something called Wall Street that’s a key part of the 1 percent.”
I still think that most people are not opposed to folks having money, I think we’re opposed to people having lots of money that they get unfairly. I think that’s a critical piece.
I don’t think people are mad at somebody who invented a product or founded a company. It’s that people see that Wall Street is not productive. Their wealth and their riches, they do not come through any normal means — they come through cheating and gambling and ripping us off, which I think troubles us in a different kind of way.
SJ: Last weekend at the Netroots New York conference you were talking about the multiple prongs of strategy that could help bring the crisis, as you said, back to the ultra-rich, who created it. You talked about foreclosures, student debt, shareholder activism. Can you talk a little more about those individual things and then how you see them fitting together?
SL: Occupy Foreclosure and Occupy Our Homes are a piece that I think is organically linked to the movement — it goes to the heart of a lot of what I think Occupy is about. Wall Street and big banks caused the crisis and that’s why people are getting thrown out of their homes. It’s a combination of physically defending people who are losing their homes but in defending those people, they’re challenging the power of Wall Street in a very real way. It’s a wonderful nexus of occupiers, people in poor communities, and established community groups. It’s tied to ongoing work.
Students, I think there’s three pieces to that. There’s the current situation, with the general cutback of education funding, which is central to how we ended up with such massive debt.
I think what’s really exciting on the student front, is that more and more students are tying the student activity directly to the 1 percent, to Wall Street, that is profiting off of their education.
“Move Your Money,” I think is a wonderful 99 percent piece. Moving money, individually is step one, the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve said “I don’t want to get robbed by big banks anymore.” What’s really exciting now is that in Minneapolis they’ve delivered 11,000 petitions to the school board saying that they need to divest from Wells Fargo. LA saw an ordinance proposed for responsible banking, getting people to move public monies, both to get them out of big banks but then also to put them in places that create jobs. It’s a simple fact that if you invest your money locally, it turns over into the local economy, while if you give it to Wall Street then 40 percent of it goes into compensation for CEOs.
That work all ties into the bigger principal reduction campaign.What we need to do is reduce people’s mortgages to the real value of the house, which would put an average of $400 a month in every homeowner’s pocket. It would create a million jobs if banks had to reduce principal to current value and address the $700 billion in negative equity homeowners have.
One of the untold stories of the financial crisis is the disproportionate impact on communities of color. So the fight about foreclosures, Occupy our Homes, and principal reduction is really about how to return the wealth that’s been sucked out of communities of color.
Then the final piece that we’re seeing more energy around is “occupy the share