Ask union types who the smartest labor organizer is and they’re likely to point you towards former-SEIU organizer Stephen Lerner, who planned the legendary Justice for Jsanitor campaign. But Lerner isn’t with a union anymore. [Correction: Lerner is with SEIU. I was just wrong about his affiliation.] He’s concluded that unions, for all their virtues, are too tied to the political system to push the sort of radical change he’s looking for, and that the next social movement will require new social institutions.
“Campaigns challenging corporate power can’t be held in check by institutions with too much to lose,” he wrote. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ seems, in many ways, to be exactly the sort of movement he was talking about. So I called him today to ask about it.
Ezra Klein: It seems surprising that we’re having this conversation towards the end of 2011, three years after TARP, rather than in late-2008. What do you think has led a movement like this to explode onto the scene now, rather than at some other point?
Stephen Lerner: Well, you never know when these things will happen. Last year, I was at a meeting where Francis Fox Pivens was talking about this. Everyone was moaning and asking why aren’t we seeing more organizing like we did in the Great Depression, and she said, people are misreading history. They have this view the Depression happened and then the country was in uproar. In 1932, people were writing articles about why there wasn’t more activity. In 1932, people were shocked by the crash; they were just hoping it would get better. As it became more clear that it was a permanent state of affairs, they began to organize to challenge the ongoing state of affairs. It was in 1934 that activity exploded.
EK: One theory I’ve heard around that is that the left had put its energy into electing Barack Obama, and so at the start of the recession, they bought into, and were relatively confident in, the country’s political leadership. That’s why the right had an authentically populist movement in the Tea Party, but the left was comparatively quiet.
SL: It’s all part of it. We thought things would get better and so people didn’t feel panicked. But I don’t think this is frustration with, or even feelings about, Obama. If you talk to the people involved, it’s this realization that Wall Street and the super rich have not just outsized economic power, but outsized political power. There’s this feeling that there’s almost this shadow government, and no matter what happens, they’ll come out fine. People are not talking about politicians that much. They’re talking about who is running the show.
EK: The running theme I’ve noticed is more about a type of unexpected hopelessness. It’s people who took out loans to go to school, or put in years at a job, or saved up to buy a house, only to find the security and, in some cases, upward mobility they thought they had achieved yanked out from under them. And then they look up at Wall Street, which is the institution that did the yanking, and everyone there seems to be flying high.
SL: That’s how people feel because that’s the truth. And then you add onto it, among students, that they’re now sitting on this enormous debt. Last night, there was an interview with this Marine who said, ‘Look, I’m a Marine. I came back; I got a job; I’m barely able to make ends meet, and I’ve got all this college debt.’ People feel strangled by the fact that education got more and more expensive; they had to take out all these loans, and now they can’t find a job or pay their debts. There’s a palpable sense of, ‘it’s just wrong,’ that some have so much while hope and opportunity are cut off for so many.
EK: You’ve argued in previous articles that a new social movement would have to come from new institutions, as the more established players, like organized labor, are too connected to both the political and private status quo. Is that why ‘Occupy Wall Street’ seems to be breaking through? Because it can do and say what those groups can’t?
SL: I think what’s important to understand is there are multiple things happening at once. This didn’t explode out of nowhere. New Bottom Line and other groups have been holding big marches with very concrete demands around principal reductions and jobs. It’s the synergy of the two that can lead to not just movement building but explosive political change. In Boston last week, 2,000 people shut down the Bank of America building. The week before, the same thing happened in San Francisco. This week, in Los Angeles, there will be a series of actions around bank takeovers. So there are a series of actions that support and ping-pong off of one another.
EK: We’re also seeing some nascent efforts on the part of more established institutions to link up with the Occupy Wall Street folks. MoveOn.org and organized labor, for instance, are planning a march on Wednesday. Do you see that as good or mad for the protesters?
SL: They’re coming in support. They’re not coming and saying you should put up our sign and adopt our logo. And what’s happening on the ground across the country is exciting. In Los Angeles, there was a meeting between the people doing bank protests this week and the Occupy Wall Street folks who are now going to join in their Thursday March. You’ve also seen the Occupy Wall Street folks showing up on picket lines supporting unions without anyone asking them. So people are trying to figure out how to support each other rather than control each other.
EK: One criticism of the protests has been that they don’t really have any demands, that there’s not a clear and achievable vision of what success looks like, nor of how to achieve it. Do you worry these efforts will just burn themselves out?
SL: I think that’s an interesting question. I don’t know the answer because we’re in uncharted waters as a country. But it’s important to realize it’s not the only thing happening. There are lots of people with concrete demands about principal reduction and closing corporate loopholes. We haven’t had a shortage of demands and solutions. We’ve had a shortage of mass movements that are courageous and heroic and driven by a sense of right and wrong. So if we can get more and more people into the streets and activism, that will give more force and energy to the demands.