The 99% Versus Wall Street: Stephen Lerner on How We Can Mobilize To Be the Greedy 1%'s Worst Nightmare
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When you look at labor history, you see that growth in organizing has never been incremental. There were times when there were bursts, when lots of good work paid off and it caught fire and grew far bigger. That's the challenge for organized labor, to figure out what our relationship to these emerging movements is. How do we support them? And it's key that they in turn are willing to do the things that unions may not be able to, that start to change the balance of power so workers can assert their rights.
SJ: Before Occupy, the first fight back in this country was in Wisconsin, around a collective bargaining bill. Not many would have thought that an attack on unions could have such a response.
SL: I think part of the reason Wisconsin and Ohio had the response is there were people to go after. These were government people, and you could un-elect them or change their behavior.
What Occupy has said and shown is that you can win the majority of Americans over to the idea, just as Wisconsin and Ohio could win people over to the idea that these government leaders were doing something bad. The key to the revival of labor is to convince the majority of people that big companies and Wall Street and bankers are doing something bad, so that when workers start to organize, it's not seen as a campaign just for high wages for them, it's a campaign that will make a more just, fair, and sustainable economy.
SJ: What do you see coming up this year? We talked about debt strikes, foreclosures, but is there anywhere else you see some forward motion that we haven't discussed?
SL: I don't think anybody should view a sort of holiday or winter lull in activity as a sign of anything. As people have said, movements ebb and flow, and whenever we look back, spring is the time that things take off again. It's really important that people not say “Oh, everything was front page news and now it's not.” People instead should be stepping back, saying, “In three months we did more than anybody imagined we could do, now it's time to step back and figure out the next stage.”
To me when we marry our rhetoric and our actions, that's when we both capture people's imaginations but also develop the strategies and tactics that win.
In my head I always come back to this: it's when words and acts mirror themselves that you then build real movements. If the Civil Rights movement had just said Jim Crow and all this are terrible and therefore we're just going to do petitions, people would have said, that's not sufficient.
I think we're doing lots of great work, but it's not sufficient unless when you add it all up it has the words and the tactics that really mirror each other in a way that really lets us challenge what's going on.
Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.