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Steve Lerner’s plan

By Ezra Klein,

Let’s start at the beginning: Who is Steve Lerner?

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.

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