How to Get People to Go After Bankers and Financiers and Stop Attacking Public Employees
The Supreme Court’s doubling down on Citizens United wasn’t the only decision this session that seemed designed to strengthen the grip of corporate America and the superrich. Another one – Knox versus SEIU Local 1000 – the Service Employees International Union – would diminish the financial power of organized labor by restricting union dues used for political action. The Knox decision is just the latest attack in the ongoing battle against labor. And like the fight in Wisconsin and other states, it focuses on public sector unions – in part because they’re the greatest remaining bastion of labor’s power.
The strength of organized labor was once a muscular way for working people to push back against plutocracy. In union there is strength -- that was the old saying and it was true. But the percentage of union members in the American workforce has declined in the last sixty years from 35 to 12 percent, and labor has faced a pounding series of setbacks of which the Supreme Court’s Knox decision is just the latest. And yet, with corporations continuing to put the squeeze on employees, with joblessness and inequality rampant, now would seem the perfect time for people to turn back to unions to fight for them against the monied interests. Why haven’t they?
Stephen Lerner has spent more than three decades as a labor and community organizer, and as architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign. He was director of SEIU’s Private Equity project – which worked to expose the Wall Street feeding frenzy that would end in catastrophe especially for the working class. Bill Fletcher Jr. graduated from Harvard and went to work as a shipyard welder, along the way becoming a labor activist fighting for racial justice and union democracy. He has worked with SEIU and the United Auto Workers, among others. He’s the author of this upcoming book. “They’re Bankrupting Us – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.”
Welcome to both of you.
STEPHEN LERNER: Thank you.
BILL FLETCHER, JR.: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Corporate profits are at an all-time high. Wages as a percent of the economy are at an all time low and fewer people are employed than anytime in the past 30 years. Why isn't this the opportunity for an old fashioned, good old fight for the working people?
STEPHEN LERNER: The question is less is it the right moment to organize, but what are the ways we organize and what are the things that we have to start doing that really let us take on corporate power.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
STEPHEN LERNER: Massive, non-violent civil disobedience. The labor movement was built when it occupied factories which weren’t, wasn't legal either. That we need to look at a set of tactics and be willing to take risks and things that we haven't done in years because when somebody wants to destroy you, giant corporations, they pass laws to make it illegal for you to exercise your democratic rights. Then we need to look at movements of the past and other countries. And what they've done again and again is that we're willing to go to jail. We're willing to take tremendous risks to win our country.
BILL FLETCHER, JR.: The difficulty in developing and moving in the direction that Stephen is suggesting is that the leaders themselves have to begin by recognizing that this is not 1970. That, that there's no going back to what we once had.
BILL MOYERS: You're talkin' about the leaders of unions?