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