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Take the Fight to the Streets (cont’d)

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STEP ONE: Connect the dots

The first step is to connect the central role that Wall Street, big banks and the super-rich played in breaking our economy to concrete demands that we can fight for–demands that are not dependent on passing federal legislation. We need state and local campaigns that can mobilize around winnable issues.

We need to put ourselves on the moral high ground, name the bad guys, and offer solutions by showing how the hundreds of billions of dollars that corporations are hoarding could be put to work fixing the economy. Wall Street is bankrupting cities, states, homeowners and students with trillions in unfair debt, even after the big banks received $17 trillion in bailouts and backstops. Part of the solution is finding the right message. But more important is how we give power to our words through actions tied to solutions. We must:

•Protect taxpayers, public budgets and services by renegotiating public debt and the public’s relationship with Wall Street. Renegotiating existing interest rates and debt with Wall Street would save taxpayers tens of billions.

•Keep millions of Americans in their homes by modifying mortgages and thereby transferring $73 billion annually from banks to people’s wallets and communities. Eleven million people are underwater with their houses worth less than the loans being paid off and another 4 million are in serious default and likely to slip into foreclosure.

•Demand that corporations invest their record profits and $1.6 trillion in cash reserves in jobs and communities and that they pay their fair share of taxes. By investing in manufacturing, infrastructure and jobs, they could put people to work and add hundreds of billions to the economy.

STEP TWO: Create economic pressure for real change

The next step is to launch campaigns that create economic pressure on Wall Street, multinationals and the super-rich by exposing the unfairness, immorality and fundamental unsoundness of Wall Street and corporate practices. We must:

•Expose Wall Street and big banks through investigations, litigation and a student loan and underwater mortgage strike. Some of this is already being done. For example, all 50 state attorneys are currently investigating banks’ illegal and fraudulent foreclosure practices. (See “Foreclosure Crisis, and Opportunity,” page 8.) Pension funds and other institutional investors are suing to win money back. Increasingly, underwater homeowners struggling to make payments are walking away from mortgages and staying in their homes as litigation over robo-signing and other bank abuses slows actual foreclosure. Combining these activities with a campaign that threatens to expand the number of people refusing to pay their mortgage will expose the fact that the big banks’ business model is bad for the economy.

•Divest and leverage public and pension money. Wall Street and big banks make huge profits doing business with public entities and pension funds. Public entities can start leveraging their money and then divest it from banks that refuse to modify mortgages or renegotiate unfair fees and interest rates. City councils can pass laws mandating divestment from banks that don’t meet certain criteria. Losing access to public dollars combined with growing problems on the mortgage front has the potential to put huge economic pressure on Wall Street, big banks and the super-rich to negotiate new terms that are good for tax payers and homeowners.

•Bargain for local investment and Wall Street accountability through public sector unions. When negotiating with their government employers, public unions could put themselves on the side of taxpayers and sound fiscal practices and demand that 5 percent of pension assets be invested in local infrastructure and businesses. U.S. public pension funds invest a combined $5 trillion in assets. A national goal of 5 percent public pension investment in state and local development would add $250 billion into infrastructure, real estate, and medium and small businesses. One study projects that every $1 billion invested in new infrastructure creates 40,000 new jobs.

•Expose the excess of corporate CEOs and show that their wealth is destructive. If we expose special tax breaks that benefit corporations and allow them to gut community jobs, we have an opportunity to put these super rich executives in a personal hot seat by highlighting the wealth that they amassed at the expense of the rest of us.

STEP THREE: Borrow from the Civil Rights movement

The third step is to supercharge the activity with a growing campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience, sit-ins, office occupations and resistance to business-as-usual. While maintaining the moral high ground, we must:

•Stage sit-ins at banks and Wall Street offices and nonviolently block foreclosures and evictions to defend homeowners and taxpayers. This will both build momentum and excitement and also have a real impact on Wall Street’s ability to profit from people’s suffering.

•Move into politicians’ offices to hold them accountable for the actions of the corporations that fund their campaigns and challenge them not to be apologists for Wall Street. Moving families that have lost their homes, jobs or benefits into the offices of politicians who received contributions from the offending corporation will highlight how big business buys politicians.

•Use direct action and mass civil disobedience to occupy workplaces that are being shuttered and the corporate offices of companies that won’t invest in local communities to highlight what is wrong.

Working together

Conditions have never been riper for a campaign to protect and grow the middle class. Escalating actions and civil disobedience are already springing up at banks, in politician’s offices, at corporate franchises and at home evictions around the country. In Los Angeles, dozens of homeowners from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment were recently arrested sitting in at JP Morgan’s offices to protest unfair foreclosures. In Washington, D.C., National People’s Action occupied the Bank of America opposite the Treasury Department. In Detroit, the United Autoworkers recently occupied a Bank of America branch by conducting a teach-in on the economy in the bank lobby. In Albany, N.Y., community groups and students occupied the capitol to protest budget cuts. In Philadelphia, a sheriff’s sale of a home was physically blocked. In Rochester, N.Y., Take Back the Land organized a two-week long eviction defense that resulted in multiple arrests of local activists. This is just the beginning of what is possible.

Progressives need to offer an analysis that gives citizens the confidence to challenge the economic policy of Wall Street. At the same time, we need to provide an inspirational vision of the kind of society we are working to create. And we need to seriously plan how to achieve that vision by fighting for and winning transformative economic change that redistributes wealth and power. We can restore an arc of history that bends toward justice, equality and greater opportunity for us all, if we have the courage to challenge the most powerful and together take a step closer to the promised land. Otherwise, we may soon watch 100 years of victories disappear. 

Stephen Lerner serves on the Service Employees International Union's International Executive Board and is the architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign. Lerner is a frequent contributor on national television and radio programs and has published numerous articles charting a path for a 21st-century labor movement.

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