Steve Lerner's plan
By Ezra Klein
The Washington Post
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
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
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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