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

Savvy organizer and big thinker Stephen Lerner talks to AlterNet about how to take power back from Wall Street.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Sarah Jaffe

 
 
 
 

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 shareholder meetings.” Increasingly corporations control our government, but corporations in theory have these meetings where decisions are made about their governance and their investment. People should buy shares and we should be visiting key executives, we should have demands of these companies, we should show up at the shareholders' meetings and say we want a say in how the corporations that are running the country should be run.

So you add all those things together and they end up being the streams that when they flow together, they end up creating a mighty river which can win really fundamental and transformative change and in doing so set the stage for ultimately rebuilding the labor movement. Which is what we've done at other points in our history, to really confront corporate power—by occupying work sites.

SJ: Glenn Beck called you an economic terrorist for proposing debt strikes as a tactic, yet we're seeing campaigns launched around debt strikes this year. What role do they play in the coming fight?

SL: Right around a year ago, I argued that corporations have always had a way, whether it's through bankruptcy or walking away from deals or renegotiating, to get out of their debt. So what I said that got Glenn Beck so cranked up was, what if we as consumers, as workers, behaved in the same rational way corporations did? What if we said, 'we're not going to pay back debt, especially debt that we got tricked into having, we're not going to pay it back until we get to renegotiate the terms?'

I think what was so fascinating about why the right-wing went so berserk, is that I really nailed their biggest fear, which is if regular people join together and acted in the same way corporations do, we could challenge their power.

SJ: I think the language you used was collective bargaining for homeowners or students or whomever the debtors might be.

SL: After the economic crisis, the banks are more consolidated than ever. The top five banks control something like 40 percent of all banking in the country. You have a tiny group of people who basically are making decisions that control all of our lives. So it's a very simple notion: why don't we bargain with them collectively? They like it when we bargain as individuals, but they work together. They all meet and decide they're not going to reduce principal, and what chance do you have as one lone homeowner?

So one idea for students or homeowners is what we do with unions. It's not that one person goes on strike -- you say, "if we get a critical mass, we'll go on strike."

The key idea for homeowners – or it could be for students -- is can you get a critical mass? I'm not going to do it by myself, but if millions of other people did it, then we'd say we want to negotiate a better deal, and we'd actually have a lot of power to do that. If we all refuse to pay at the same time, it would put enormous financial pressure on them.

SJ: In the New Labor Forum piece, you said “If our goal is to offend no one, we're in danger of doing next to nothing.” How do we balance the need to build a real majority with the need for escalating tactics?

SL: It goes back to the need for different streams of work. I think we need ways that people can enter at their comfort level. That's why “Move Your Money” is so exciting -- it's not that hard to do, it actually creates a wonderful discussion about what's going on with wealth in this country, why in the world the Federal Reserve gave trillions of dollars of low or no-interest loans to the banks while cities and states then had to pay high interest rates to borrow it.

The key is that you're doing many things on multiple levels simultaneously. Some of those are majoritarian tactics like “Move Your Money” or some, like the shareholders' meetings, will really excite a lot of people. When people realize they can buy a share of Bank of America stock for $5 and go to a shareholder meeting, I think that will attract a whole other group of people. I think it would be a terrific mistake to think it was all about getting arrested. Most people aren't going to do that.

But you want to continue to tap into that emotion, communicate to people that we're not doing this just for fun, we're doing this because it really is what the problem with the country is.

The principal reduction piece is how we talk about solutions. When you say to somebody, “If we wrote down mortgages to what they're really worth, which is just what corporations do when they go into bankruptcy or they walk away from properties, it would put $400 a month into the average person's pocket at no cost to anybody but the banks,” people will go “Wow!”

Those are the kinds of things we have to look at, and very consciously avoiding polarizing just for the sake of polarizing. It's a delicate dance, I think.

One thing that is critical with all of this is the commitment to nonviolence. When people are willing to risk arrest, and where it's around people sacrificing or doing something out of high moral cause, there is huge tolerance for that even among people who may not agree. The use of violence is devastating to the majoritarian concept. That's a huge challenge for the movement, the commitment to nonviolence and how that permeates everything that we do.

That's what we learned again and again on the janitors' campaign. We did things that were massively disruptive, on the janitors' strikes. The response was totally different, when it was poor workers who were willing to go to jail to try to make a better life than when somebody in a more traditional strike engaged in something that was thought of as violence, even against property.

SJ: When I told my Republican mother about Occupy Our Homes, and when I told her specifically the story of the family at 702 Vermont here in East New York, and she said “Yeah, I approve of that.” That story worked for her, the way things like the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr, the Occupy Student Debt Tumblr, really impact people. I think we're seeing more willingness on the part of people to share their personal stories now.

SL: I think what's key about that, people have been raised to feel shame if they're a debtor or they can't pay their bills. We've had wonderful experiences where multiple neighbors get together, and nobody's had a discussion with each other that they're all on the edge of foreclosure, or that their houses were worth so much less than they paid for them that they were every day losing money when they paid their mortgage.

People had this breakthrough when they'd say "You're in that situation too?" Even on predatory and unfair loans, they don't want to admit that they got suckered. People don't want to say, 'I'm an adult, I'm a smart person, and I didn't see the trick in this.' You hear people talk about penalties for early payments. Who in the world would ever think, "I get penalized if I make my payment early"?

People tell their stories in multiple forms, whether it's online, in teams, watching videos, it gives that feeling of "Aha, it's not me in isolation, this is something much bigger," and I think it empowers people to take action.

SJ: We were talking at the beginning about the shrinking union base; can we rebuild the union base now that we're no longer an industrial economy? Or are we looking at different kinds of organizing for the 99 percent?

SL: In a way it goes to the analysis question. Often when you looked at janitors one way, you'd say, well they're all small work sites, there's five people in the building at a time, there's 10 people in the building, the employers don't have that many workers, you'd say it's hopeless. But really there's a handful of real estate companies that control an entire city. You're then able to think about the 1 percent.

I don't know if there's a country in the world that's had a real progressive movement or the kind of change most of us believe in without a vibrant labor movement. And you can't have a vibrant labor movement that just represents the public sector. It has to represent the private sector.

So I'm actually extraordinarily hopeful that what Occupy partly does is reawaken people to the fact that it's not their fault that they have a lousy job, it's not that they didn't work hard. We're awakening to a range of strategies and tactics, ranging from focusing on who's really in charge to thinking about how nonviolent civil disobedience and occupations can really put financial pressure on those who are mistreating workers. And as we did with the janitors, thinking about whole geography of the industry to organize at one time rather than organizing in isolation.

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.