Stephen Lerner’s 2011
American Prospect, 2 January 2012
“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.
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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.