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What Role for Labor in the Progressive Uprising? A Conversation With Stephen Lerner

Stephen Lerner (left) talks to the President of SEIU Local 1 as they walk past Goldman Sachs Headquarters on the way to Wells Fargo Regional Office in Chicago to protest. This was the second day of protest for a threeday event titled, Showdown in Chicago on Monday October 26, 2009. (Photo: Heather Stone / SEIU International)

What Role for Labor in the Progressive Uprising? A Conversation With Stephen Lerner

Stephen Lerner (left) talks to the President of SEIU Local 1 as they walk past Goldman Sachs Headquarters on the way to Wells Fargo Regional Office in Chicago to protest. This was the second day of protest for a threeday event titled, Showdown in Chicago on Monday October 26, 2009. (Photo: Heather Stone / SEIU International)

No force did more to build the American middle class than organized labor. In recent decades, however, unions have been decimated. Despite concerted efforts to turn the tide, the movement now represents only 7 percent of workers in the private sector. Never have working people in this country been more in need of a collective voice. Yet, we must ask, can labor alone create the change we need? If it can't do it by itself, what role can unions play in supporting a wider progressive uprising?

Few individuals are offering more interesting, credible and challenging views on this question than veteran labor strategist Stephen Lerner. Ezra Klein recently wrote in The Washington Post: “Ask union types who the smartest labor organizer is and they're likely to point you towards [SEIU] organizer Stephen Lerner, who planned the legendary Justice for Janitors campaign.” In the most recent issue of New Labor Forum, Lerner has an essay titled “A New Insurgency Can Only Arise Outside the Progressive and Labor Establishment.” It is a must-read for all those who wish to think seriously about creating change in this country.

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I had a chance to sit down with Lerner on his back porch and have a conversation about his article. I walked away with the resolve that never before has it been so important for labor to have an inside-outside strategy. This means that unions can't just work to get better politicians elected, but must also help foster a wider grassroots insurgency that can directly challenge the forces that have undermined the American middle class.

We are about to enter an election year, a time when we would normally put all our eggs in the basket of electoral campaigning. But Lerner makes a compelling case that it is necessary for the labor movement to maintain a dual focus. And that will mean changing the way we usually operate.

In his essay, Lerner argues that, amid efforts by the super-rich and major corporations to restructure the economy for their own benefit, unions have not been able to formulate a response by themselves. “Unfortunately,” he writes:

organized labor can be as much of an obstacle as it is a solution to mounting a movement for social justice that might reverse this trend and offer hope for the future.

Unions have the money, members, and capacity to organize, build, and fuel a movement designed to challenge the power of the corporate elite. But despite the fact that thousands of dedicated members, leaders, and staff have worked their hearts out to rebuild the labor movement, unions are just big enough – and just connected enough to the political and economic power structure – to be constrained from leading the kinds of activities that are needed.

Lerner cites examples in which unions have called off high-profile protests or acts of civil disobedience because they were worried that the actions would be perceived as too confrontational, or concerned that such protests would have negative legal, economic or political ramifications.

“If our goal is not to offend anyone,” Lerner told me, echoing a point he makes in his essay, “we might as well not do anything at all.”

I agree with one of his central points here: The more labor is seen as a narrow special interest group, representing the small pools of workers who have union contracts, the more its power will continue to decline. It will be left fighting defensive battles to hold on to the remaining vestiges of the New Deal, even as these are successively whittled away.

In order to change this, labor needs to address the issues that are of central concern to working people in this country, even if those issues fall outside the workplace. This means taking on the big banks, fighting foreclosures, pushing for public investment in our neighborhoods, reversing efforts to strip the state of revenue so that we can pay for essential social services.

I talked with Lerner about the groups that are doing this. A variety of national and regional networks – including National People's Action, the Alliance for a Just Society and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment – are organizing in communities around just such issues. They are making savvy decisions about which specific lenders, employers and politicians they target. They are coordinating with other community groups across state lines to share best practices for campaign strategy and leadership development.

The labor movement has an urgent need to engage such allies and join in community-wide campaigns in cities across the country. Housing justice, predatory lending, transportation, immigrant rights, the elimination of public services: these are the issues that a huge number of Americans – including those who are union members – are confronting on a day-to-day basis. Efforts such as Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) Fight for a Fair Economy are starting to join with community allies on such fights, recognizing that labor needs an outspoken progressive movement bigger than itself if it is to succeed.

“One day protests won't do it,” Lerner told me. “We need actions that escalate, that really grow and gain intensity over time.” In his New Labor Forum essay, Lerner argues that unions should financially support – but not exercise control over – “a new wave of direct action and mass activity.” He uses this year's protests in Madison, which linked unions with community allies and embraced militant tactics such as building occupations, as an example. More recently, in The Washington Post, he discussed the Occupy Wall Street movement as part of the same model.

Talking with Lerner about how labor might fund, but not control, such protest movements, I expressed some skepticism. Practically speaking, I asked, isn't it unrealistic to expect local union leaders to hand over resources to community mobilizations without being able to mandate any clear outcomes?

“It's not a blank check,” Lerner said. “Unions should be engaged with the movement. They should be encouraging their members to join broader efforts and sharing information. But labor sometimes has too much at stake, economically and politically, to take the lead itself.”

As the election year approaches, I believe that Lerner's argument has profound implications for how unions approach their political program. Now more than ever, labor needs to revive an inside-outside strategy by marrying its political muscle with engagement in community organizing.

In the past decade, unions have developed more sophisticated electoral field campaigns than ever before. This gives the labor movement sway among elected officials, particularly on the local and state levels. The problem is that, in most parts of the country, we are not holding politicians accountable to any concrete agenda. These lesser-evil politicians have no real stake in helping to expand our ability to build up an institutional counterbalance to the power of corporate America. To hold them accountable, we need a progressive movement that applies pressure from the outside.

“People in this country know that the economy is rigged and it's not working for them,” Lerner said. “They are angry about it, and they are ready to mobilize in ways we haven't seen in generations. I think unions can play a part in this process.”

What is important about the community mobilizations that Lerner discusses is that they are gaining steam at the same time that labor's electoral machinery is gearing up. Instead of letting the election cycle distract us from the broader fights we need to be having, the mobilizations can allow unions to be working on both inside and outside tracks. Being engaged with community allies who are undertaking escalating public actions makes labor part of a wider progressive insurgency that is articulating an agenda for how to make the economy fair again, and that is putting that vision out in the street.

“I understand why unions sometimes can't risk their relationships with certain employers or politicians,” Lerner said. “But that can't stop efforts to create accountability for corporations and for politicians. Unions need to take a leap of faith and support the uprisings that are working to rebalance power in our country.”

A PDF of Lerner's article can be found on the New Labor Forum web site here.

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