- Former SEIU board member
- Seeks to foment revolution that will derail the "failed free market corporatist ideology"
- Aims to “bring down the stock market” and “interfere” with wealthy people's “ability to be rich”
Formerly an International Executive Board member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Stephen Lerner is a longtime, influential left-wing organizer who once worked for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America. In 1988 he led SEIU’s high-profile “Justice for Janitors” campaign, which demanded higher wages and better benefits for janitors in a dozen U.S. cities.
In 1996 Lerner lamented that labor unions, whose influence he deemed indispensable to the maintenance of “a just, democratic society,” were “losing membership, influence, self-confidence, and strategic direction.” Asserting that workers’ “economic and political strength comes from collective organization [and] not individual wealth,” Lerner voiced his unwavering commitment to “rebuilding unions and transforming them into the leaders of a new movement for economic and social justice” that would address the needs of “the ever increasing numbers of people forced into poverty” by capitalism’s inequities.
Extremely hostile toward the wealthy, Lerner told Australian TV in 2007: “We literally have a handful of billionaires that are marauding around the globe, buying and selling things, and they need to be held accountable.”
“The meltdown of the economy, the resulting disenchantment with failed free market corporatist ideology, growing inequality, global warming/environmental degradation, and the war in Iraq are creating conditions that are ripe for organizing and … movement building…. [I]t feels like we are on the edge of a moment of historic change.”
Lerner visited the Barack Obama White House at least four times during 2009-10: once for a large group’s private tour of the White House; once for a White House Hanukkah celebration; once (May 22, 2010) for a private meeting with a presidential personnel officer who managed economic agencies; and once (October 16, 2010) for an appointment scheduled by Tara Corrigan, executive assistant to then-White House political director Patrick Gaspard.
In November 2010, rumors swirled that Lerner had been fired by SEIU’s recently elected president, Mary Kay Henry, in a dispute over whether the union would spend millions of dollars to organize low-paid workers in a multi-city, anti-bank campaign as Lerner wanted, or would instead pursue more traditional organizing targets. But according to SEIU official (and ACORN founder) Wade Rathke, Lerner remained on the union’s International Executive Board and had merely been “placed on paid leave … to think through his contribution to the union.”
Seeking to punish Wall Street firms for allegedly having stolen “$17 trillion” from the American middle class, Lerner helped organize a so-called “anti-banking jihad” which Wade Rathke had heralded in a March 2011 call for “days of rage in ten cities around JP Morgan Chase.”
- Lerner speculated that if he and his comrades could organize “half a million” homeowners to stage a mass “mortgage strike”—i.e., refuse to pay their mortgages—they could “put banks at the edge of insolvency again” and “literally cause a new financial crisis.”
- In a similar vein, Lerner urged college graduates to initiate “a debt strike” vis à vis their student loans. Such tactics were intended, as Lerner put it, to “destabilize the folks that are in power and start to rebuild a movement.”
- Lerner further explained that “we are in a transformative stage of what’s happening in capitalism … building something that really has the capacity to disrupt how the system operates.”
- Outlining his strategy to “bring down the stock market” and “interfere” with wealthy people’s “ability to be rich,” Lerner paraphrased a tactic which had been spelled out by the famed community organizer Saul Alinsky: “We have to politically isolate them, economically isolate them, and disrupt them,” said Lerner. Declaring that “a bunch of us around the country” had “decided” that JP Morgan Chase “would be a really good company to hate,” he added: “We are going to roll out over the next couple of months what will hopefully be an exciting campaign about JP Morgan Chase that is really about challenge [sic] the power of Wall Street.”
- Specifically, Lerner envisioned “a week” of “civil disobedience” and “direct action” to be carried out “all over the city” of New York in early May of 2011. He and his forces would “roll into the JP Morgan shareholder meeting” and then initiate “a ten-state mobilization” that would similarly target “bank shareholder meetings around the country.” By waging such “brave and heroic battles challenging the power of the giant corporations,” Lerner hoped “to inspire a much bigger movement about redistributing wealth and power” in the United States.
On September 10, 2011, Lerner revealed his connection to the soon-to-be-launched Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement when he foretold that major protests would be staged “in Seattle, in L.A., in San Francisco, in Chicago, in New York, in Boston.” “We’ve got some stuff in Boston and New York that’s going to really be spectacular,” he emphasized. “This is about building and creating power,” Lerner added. “We’re not going to convince the other side that we’re right through intellectual argument. We need to create power, and in a way we need to talk about how we create a crisis for the super rich.”
At an SEIU 775 convention in Seattle on September 22, 2011, Lerner told a receptive union audience that it was necessary to demonize people like JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon in order to generate enough hatred and envy to foment revolution. “We’ve got to be clear on the human beings who are bad,” he said, emphasizing that wealthy corporate leaders must be made into social outcasts, despised even by their own children: “How do we make it so politicians don’t even want their money because their money’s toxic, it’s dirty, it’s evil?” Added Lerner: “It’s one thing if we say JP Morgan Chase crashed the economy. It’s another thing if we say Jamie Dimon makes $20 million a year, who is involved in the opera and all these philanthropies, and thinks he’s a nice guy, and he’s destroying our lives.” (This tactic reflected Lerner’s allegiance to Saul Alinsky’s dictum that an enemy “must be a personification, not something general and abstract like a corporation or City Hall.”)
Lerner commonly conflates labor activism with the civil-rights movement of the 1960s and other mass movements in American history. At the aforementioned SEIU event in Seattle, he said:
“When you look at every great movement in history from the abolitionists to the suffragettes to the auto workers who seized the auto factories to the civil rights movement to the immigrant rights movement, everywhere in the world, what do they all have in common? People willing to march en masse and people willing to go to jail in greater and greater numbers and if we really believe that the richest, most powerful people in the world, that their goal is to destroy us, then there’s an urgency that our actions and our words and the crisis all put together [create].”
In March 2012 Lerner wrote an op-ed in The Nation, praising the achievements of the Occupy Wall Street movement: “Occupy has cracked open the door that lets us imagine that another world is possible. Thousands of arrests, months of protest and acts of incredible personal risk and sacrifice have put inequality and Wall Street’s out-of-control political and economic power on center stage. As activity ratchets up this spring, the challenge is to get more people pushing that door open ever wider.”
In the same piece, Lerner explained that OWS would next seek to:
- force banks to “writ[e] down [mortgage] principal to fair market value for homeowners with negative equity,” thereby cutting average mortgages by hundreds of dollars per month;
- spearhead a “strike” by a million or more student debtors who, by pledging not to pay their student loans, would “create a collection crisis that could force negotiations about reducing student debt”; and
- dispatch tens of thousands of people (not only from OWS but also from community organizations, unions, and environmental groups) to “show up at the annual shareholder meetings of major corporations.” “Some people will be on the inside with proxies,” wrote Lerner, “and others will be massed in the streets, all delivering the message that it is no longer acceptable for giant, unaccountable corporations to decide the political and economic fate of the country.”
In early 2012, Lerner was a guest speaker at an “Occupy Strategy Session” at New York University — an event billed as a group discussion on “The Abolition of Capitalism.” There, he encouraged people to: (a) not pay their mortgages while they “occup[ied]” their homes, and (b) invade annual shareholders’ meetings and force them to shut down. Some key excerpts from Lerner’s talk:
“Let me just throw out a couple [of] ideas here. One, I think a theme here that’s really important is Occupy Homes as a key part of the stew in multiple spheres. There’s eviction defense, there’s folks who are moving back into homes that they were evicted from that have been sitting empty, there’s community organizing, there’s a fight with Fannie [Mae] and Freddie [Mac], but this notion that millions of people are losing their homes and we can physically help them save it, very important … This second question, this question of moving money, which has mainly been an individual act so far, you know, move your account out of a bank, getting institutions, schools, universities, school boards, to move money out of banks as a way to put them into either credit unions or things that do economic development, it captures both what is wrong with finance capital, but then it’s something everybody can do … In fact, it’s infused by the energy of somebody that just got thrown in jail for trying to keep their home …
“But here’s the real crux of the matter: How do we give workers the confidence? … How do we create a mood in the nation where we’re occupying our workplaces, where we’re shutting down our workplaces? … Where workers are sitting in, where workers are shutting down their places of work, and when the police come, when the injunctions come, we’re all there with them, so we can really deal with part of the reason that the economy’s so screwed up … which is a few people have got all the power. Think stew, think hope, death to the Stockholm Syndrome!”
In August 2012, Lerner was a guest speaker at the National Student Power Convergence held in Columbus Ohio, along with such notables as Naomi Klein and Carl Davidson. According to a Huffington Post review of the conference, the major themes that were discussed included: (a) “the injustices of the current economic and political system”; and (b) “a range of unsolved societal inequities” that politicians had failed to confront, namely “racial, gender, and LGBTQ inequity, corporate-money’s negative influence on political decision-making, and environmental degradation.”
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