A Strategist for Rebalancing Power

Occupy Lerner

“We must expand from one-day marches and demonstrations to weeks of creative direct action and activities,” wrote Stephen Lerner in New Labor Forum, a quarterly left-labor journal, several weeks before Occupy Wall Street took shape. One way to do that, he continued, “is to build these kinds of longer and more involved protests around students and community groups that have the energy and willingness to take time off from their day-to-day lives to engage in more intense activity (which includes the risk of getting arrested.)”

Lerner wasn’t volunteering activists to do anything that he hadn’t already done. As the primary architect of the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign, which remains the most successful (and against-the-odds) private-sector organizing campaign of the past quarter-century, Lerner had planned and participated in dozens, if not hundreds, of disruptive demonstrations over the years to dramatize the janitors’ cause. At the same time, he had headed up campaigns that identified and brought pressure on the leading institutional investors in the real estate companies that owned the office buildings in America’s downtowns, and won the support and participation of community, religious and political leaders and organizations in the janitors’ actions. (I recall one instance in Los Angeles when elected officials not only marched with the janitors down Wilshire Boulevard, but accompanied the janitors’ negotiating committee to a bargaining session with management. Nothing like having an assembly speaker sitting alongside union leaders across the bargaining table to concentrate management’s mind.)

Contrary to the fulminations of Glenn Beck, Lerner had nothing to do with the formation and operations of Occupy Wall Street—but in the broadest sense, OWS was following the pages in Lerner’s playbook whether they knew it or not. Shortly after the 2008 crash, Lerner conceived and headed up a financial sector project at SEIU. The project took many and varied forms, among them advocating the formation of state-owned banks to serve as alternatives to the existing banking structure, and building a mass movement against Wall Street. It called for the investment of resources in community and movement organizations that unions didn’t control. Indeed, Lerner soon became an advocate for focusing unions on some extra-union activities. It was, he argued, the highest form of labor self-interest: Unless the balance of economic and political power in the U.S. was radically shifted, the decline of unions would only accelerate.

“Despite the fact that thousands of dedicated members leaders, and staff have worked their hearts out to rebuild the labor movement,” he wrote in the New Labor Forum article, “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. Campaigns challenging corporate power can’t be held in check by institutions with too much to lose. … It is understandable that unions don’t want to risk their own relationships with certain employers or politicians. But that shouldn’t restrain a broader effort to hold those corporations and politicians accountable”—by the kinds of ongoing and disruptive organizations that Lerner has advocated to dramatize causes ranging from the janitors’ to homeowners’, students’ and state and local governments’ in hock to the banks.

Over the past couple of years, Lerner has served as a de facto strategic adviser to community organizations (some of them spin-offs of ACORN) that have worked to pressure banks (through demonstrations and campaigns to transfer accounts elsewhere) to stop home foreclosures and begin the large-scale modification of mortgages. A number (for the moment, 36) of these community groups have banded together in the New Bottom Line Coalition, which took shape in the months leading up to the emergence of OWS.

In April, in an article he wrote for In These Times, Lerner argued that it was time to “take the fight to the streets.” The first step of such a campaign, he continued, would be “to connect the central role that Wall Street, big banks and the super-rich played in breaking our economy to concrete demands we can fight for.” As events have played out, OWS did a terrific job of highlighting Wall Street’s central role in changing our economy for the worse, and the groups that Lerner works with have begun their campaigns for such concrete demands as tuition reductions and mortgage modifications. The relationship between OWS and the community groups has been unplanned and symbiotic. In helping OWS without seeking to control it, unions have pretty much followed Lerner’s advice, offered in his New Labor Forum piece, “to help … finance these kinds of activities with the explicit agreement that they won’t control or call them off because of outside pressures.”

Lerner is neither in nor of Occupy Wall Street. On the anarcho-syndicalist continuum, the OWS activists are the anarchos while Lerner is the syndicalist. (I’ve known Lerner for about 20 years, and I don’t think forestalling decisions until consensus is achieved is something that would even occur to him.) Be that as it may, his name is very near the top of that lamentably short list of strategists of how to rebalance power in America so that the 99 percent have more of it, and it speaks well of the labor movement that so many of its leaders have embraced, however warily, his strategies for change.

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