Sunday, March 27, 2011
Steve Lerner’s Plan
Stephen Lerner. Speaker at the Left Forum 2011 "Towards a Politics of Solidarity" Pace University March 19, 2011.
Steve Lerner is a union organizer best known as the architect of the remarkable Justice for Janitors campaign. He’s considered one of the smartest organizers, if not the smartest organizer, working in the labor movement right now. A month or two ago, when I began asking around for forward-looking labor thinkers who could give me some ideas for where labor should go after Wisconsin, his was the first name I was given — even though he’s no longer actually employed by his union. There was a good reason for that. At a time when a lot of people in labor have become, if not resigned to their fate as a marginal force in American life, increasingly confused as to how to reverse it, Lerner has a lot of fight left in him.
Lerner is one of the more radical thinkers in the labor movement. He does not share Andy Stern’s view that labor’s future entails more cooperation with employers. He thinks it requires more and sharper conflict, and only after those battles are won and employers have a reason to come to the table can cooperation become the norm. This is why he and SEIU parted ways — his ideas about where labor should go are different than theirs. And as of today, Lerner’s side of this argument has suddenly become very public, as Glenn Beck and his outlet the Blaze have picked up on them.
The Blaze attended a conference of lefties where Lerner presented his big idea: Like a lot of people, he feels the financial system got off too easy in the crisis. They created the mess, but unlike the millions of foreclosed homeowners and newly unemployed workers, they’ve come out mostly unscathed. It’s still very, very good to be a banker in this country. It’s not good at all to be underwater on your house. And he’s got a plan for changing that.
Union types are always looking for “leverage.” Leverage is what I have that gives me power over you. And Lerner thinks he’s identified the point of leverage that workers and homeowners and students have over the financial system. “What does the other side fear most?” Lerner asked. “They fear disruption, they fear uncertainty. Every article about Europe says a riot in Greece, the markets went down. The folks that control this country care about one thing: how the stock market does; how the bond market does; and what their bonus is. So I think we weed out a very simple strategy: how do we bring down the stock market, how do we bring down their bonuses, how do we interfere with their ability to, to be rich.” To do so, he wants to see a campaign of disruption and strategic default led by community-activist groups and aimed at J.P. Morgan Chase.
As Lerner sees it, once there’s leverage, once the banks are scared, there can be a settlement. What sort of settlement? Lerner gives a couple of examples in his talk. “You” — meaning banks in general, and J.P. Morgan Chase in particular — “reduce the price of our interest, since your interest rate is down; and second, you rewrite the mortgages for everybody in the community so they can stay in their homes. We could make them do that.”
I think there’s much to fear in Lerner’s plan, and also a fair amount to like. It’s true that the banks got off too easy, and that a lot of mortgages should be renegotiated. It’s also true that economic disruption is, by its very nature, difficult to control. You might think you’re engaged in a targeted action against J.P. Morgan Chase only to end up somewhere very different. But for better or worse, it’s unlikely that the union movement would actually adopt Lerner’s plans, or that they’d even have the power to make good on them if they wanted to adopt them.
Beck’s outlet sells its transcript of a talk Lerner gave in public as “REVEALED — THE LEFT’S ECONOMIC TERRORISM PLAYBOOK.” In reality, it’s Steve Lerner’s plan to organize a series of strikes and protests in order to force the banks to forgive a lot of homeowner and student-loan debt. But at least now, when this takes on its inevitably central role in Beck’s cosmology of liberal economic thinking, you’ll know where it came from.
Stephen Lerner is the architect of the SEIU's groundbreaking Justice for Janitors campaign. He led the union's banking and finance campaign and has partnered with unions and groups in Europe, South American and elsewhere in campaigns to hold financial institutions accountable. As director of the union's private equity project, he launched a long campaign to expose the over-leveraged feeding frenzy of private equity firms during the boom years that led to the ensuing economic disaster.
It feels to me after a long time of being on defense that something is starting to turn in the world and we just have to decide if we are on defense or offense.
Maybe there is a different way to look at some of theses questions it’s hard for me to think about any part of organizing without thinking what just happened with this economic crisis and what it means.
I don't know how to have a discussion about labor and community if we don't first say what do we need to do at this time in history what is the strategy that gives us some chance of winning because I spent my life time as a union organizer justice for janitors a lot of things. It seems we are at a moment where the world is going to get much much worse or much much better.
Unions are almost dead we cannot survive doing what we do but the simple fact of the matter is community organizations are almost dead also and if you think about what we need to do it may give us some direction which is essentially what the folks that are in charge - the big banks and everything - what they want is stability.
Every time there is a crisis in the world they say, well, the markets are stable.
What's changed in America is the economy doing well has nothing to do with the rest of us.
They figured out that they don't need us to be rich they can do very well in a global market without us so what does this have to do with community and labor organizing more.
We need to figure out in a much more through direct action more concrete way how we are really trying to disrupt and create uncertainty for capital for how corporations operate.
The thing about a boom and bust economy is it is actually incredibly fragile.
There are actually extraordinary things we could do right now to start to destabilize the folks that are in power and start to rebuild a movement.
For example, 10% of homeowners are underwater right their home they are paying more for it then its worth 10% of those people are in strategic default, meaning they are refusing to pay but they are staying in their home that's totally spontaneous they figured out it takes a year to kick me out of my home because foreclosure is backed up.
If you could double that number you would you could put banks at the edge of insolvency again.
Students have a trillion dollar debt.
We have an entire economy that is built on debt and banks so the question would be what would happen if we organized homeowners in mass to do a mortgage strike if we get half a million people to agree it would literally cause a new finical crisis for the banks not for us we would be doing quite well we wouldn't be paying anything.
Government is being strangled by debt.
There are four things we could do that could really upset Wall Street.
One is if city and state and other government entities demanded to renegotiate their debt and you might say why would the banks ever do it - because city and counties could say we won’t do business with you in the future if you won’t renegotiate the debt now.
So we could leverage the power we have of government and say two things we won’t do business with you JP Morgan Chase anymore unless you do two things: you reduce the price of our interest and second you rewrite the mortgages for everybody in the communities.
We could make them do that.
The second thing is there is a whole question in Europe about students’ rates in debt structure. What would happen if students said we are not going to pay. It’s a trillion dollars. Think about republicans screaming about debt a trillion dollars in student debt.
There is a third thing we can think about what if public employee unions instead of just being on the defensive put on the collective bargaining table when they negotiate they say we demand as a condition of negotiation that the government renegotiate - it’s crazy that you’re paying too much interest to your buddies the bankers it’s a strike issue - we will strike unless you force the banks to renegotiate.
Then if you add on top of that if we really thought about moving the kind of disruption in Madison but moving that to Wall Street and moving that to other cities around the country.
We basically said you stole seventeen trillion dollars - you've impoverished us and we are going to make it impossible for you to operate.
Labor can’t lead this right now so if labor can’t lead but we are a critical part of it we do have money we have millions of members who are furious.
But I don't think this kind of movement can happen unless community groups and other activists take the lead.
If we really believe that we are in a trans-formative stage of what's happening in capitalism.
Then we need to confront this in a serious way and develop really ability to put a boot in the wheel then we have to think not about labor and community alliances we have to think about how together we are building something that really has the capacity to disrupt how the system operates.
We need to think about a whole new way of thinking about this not as a partnership but building something new.
We have to think much more creatively. The key thing... What does the other side fear the most - they fear disruption. They fear uncertainty. Every article about Europe says in they rioted in Greece the markets went down.
The folks that control this country care about one thing how the stock market goes what the bond market does how the bonuses goes. We have a very simple strategy:
How do we bring down the stock market
How do we bring down their bonuses
How do we interfere with there ability to be rich
And that means we have to politically isolate them, economically isolate them and disrupt them
It’s not all theory I’ll do a pitch.
So a bunch of us around the country think who would be a really good company to hate we decided that would be JP Morgan Chase and so we are going to roll out over the next couple of months what would hopefully be an exciting campaign about JP Morgan Chase that is really about challenge the power of Wall Street.
And so what we are looking at is the first week in May can we get enough people together starting now to really have an week of action in New York I don't want to give any details because I don't know if there are any police agents in the room.
The goal would be that we will roll out of New York the first week of May. We will connect three ideas
That we are not broke there is plenty of money.
They have the money - we need to get it back.
That they are using Bloomberg and other people in government as the vehicle to try and destroy us.
And so we need to take on those folks at the same time and that we will start here we are going to look at a week of civil disobedience - direct action all over the city then roll into the JP Morgan shareholder meeting which they moved out of New York because I guess they were afraid because of Columbus.
There is going to be a ten state mobilization it try and shut down that meeting and then looking at bank shareholder meetings around the country and try and create some moments like Madison except where we are on offense instead of defense
Where we have brave and heroic battles challenging the power of the giant corporations. We hope to inspire a much bigger movement about redistributing wealth and power in the country and that labor can’t do itself that community groups can’t do themselves but maybe we can work something new and different that can be brave enough and daring and nimble enough to do that kind of thing.
Posted by Robert Daraio at 2:37 PM