SPEAKER: Steven Lerner. Speaker at the Left Forum 2011 “Towards a Politics of Solidarity” Pace University March 19, 2011
Speaker Bio: 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
The 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 improvised 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 transformative 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
* and 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.