The 99% Versus Wall Street: Stephen Lerner on How We Can Mobilize To Be the Greedy 1%'s Worst Nightmare
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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.