- 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 the director of the Service Employees International Union‘s property-services division, Stephen Lerner is a longtime, influential left-wing organizer. He once worked for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America. In 1988 Lerner 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.”
As the U.S. economy headed toward crisis in the summer of 2008, Lerner sensed an opportunity for launching a transformative left-wing revolution, as he noted in the socialist journal _Monthly Revie_w:
“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.”
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.”
At a “Left Forum” held at New York’s Pace University on March 19, 2011, 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,” he 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,” Lerner 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 JPMorgan 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 JPMorgan 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. At the aforementioned September 22 SEIU event, 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 [creates].”
Between early 2009 and late 2011, Lerner visited the Obama White House four times: once for a large group’s private tour, once for a Hanukkah celebration, and twice for private meetings with high-level executive offices.
“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 reducing 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.”