This Can Be Our Moment

Stephen Lerner

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Working people are losing when we should be winning. Wall Street, the Koch brothers, greedy CEOs, and the super-rich have seized the economic crisis they created and are exploiting it. They are slashing public budgets; attacking nurses, teachers and firefighters; destroying public employee unions; and cutting healthcare, education, childcare and other critical community programs.

We can use our political and economic power to renegotiate our relationship with Wall Street to keep millions of people in their homes and raise revenue for cities and states.

Their campaign will intensify as they dedicate themselves to destroying the remaining islands of private-sector union strength – slashing benefits and pay for all workers. Their goal: lock in their political and economic dominance. Their champions: politicians like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Ohio Governor John Kasich (a former Wall Street executive), Glenn Beck and others on the far right. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. This can be our moment. The fragility of an unstable boom-and-bust economy and growing economic inequality create unique opportunities to stoke simmering discontent into concrete, concerted direct action to challenge corporate extremism. From Wisconsin, where hundreds of thousands of workers, students, clergy and others have rallied, to cities around the country where average Americans are occupying Wall Street banks to protest revenue shortfalls, the poisonous deals banks have with cities and states, and foreclosures, a movement is being born that challenges corporate dominance and is inspired by a vision of a better and more just world.

But in order to make this vision reality, we need to go on offense and make Wall Street pay for the trillions it stole from us. 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 after crashing the economy. We can use our political and economic power to renegotiate our relationship with Wall Street to keep millions of people in their homes, and raise revenue for cities and states to protect jobs and critical services:

The Potential Power of Government – Don’t Do Business with Bandit Banks: Wall Street does trillions in business with all levels of government. Let’s leverage that money by getting governments to refuse to do business with banks that don’t pay their fair share in taxes, won’t renegotiate high-cost deals that are bankrupting taxpayers with astronomical interest rates, and refuse to stop foreclosures by reducing mortgage principals.

The Potential Power of Homeowners and Students – Don’t Pay Unfair Debt: Growing numbers of homeowners and students cannot afford to pay back their loans. If they organized a loan strike – refusing to pay their mortgages and student loans unless banks agreed to negotiate lower rates – it would threaten CEO bonuses and bottom lines of the banks. When corporations are in trouble they renegotiate their debt all the time so they can get on their feet again. Homeowners, students and local government need that same deal.

The Potential Power of Public Employee Unions – Bargaining to Protect Public Dollars: Public employee unions so far have been on the defensive, trying to stop cuts and concessions. Nurses, teachers, firefighters and others can go on the offensive by putting concrete proposals on the table that would save billions like demanding governments get out of the toxic interest rate swaps that are costing taxpayers at least $1.8 billion a year nationally, or making California renegotiate old loans to conform to the new law on universal credit ratings, which would save $21 billion. Imagine teachers, nurses, firefighters and police voting to strike in order to make the city or state use its power to protect taxpayers and public services while helping to stop foreclosures and stabilize the housing market and tax base.

The Potential Power of Private-Sector Unions – Bargaining for the Greater Good: Collective bargaining can’t only be about improving wages and grievance procedures for union members – it must become a tool for fixing broken industries, creating jobs and revitalizing communities, creating economic opportunity, and altering business practices that exploit communities and pollute the environment. Historically, unions have narrowed what we fight for in moments of weakness. But unions, collective bargaining, and organizing make less and less sense the more we narrow the scope of what we are trying to achieve. By expanding what we’re mobilizing for, unions can politicize and transform narrow bargaining into a vehicle to make unions relevant again and rebuild the middle class.

In 2008, few predicted that Wall Street bankers would turn the crisis they created on its head to further concentrate wealth and power in their hands. But their very success is creating fertile ground for the seeds of a movement that turns the tables on them, goes on the offense and starts winning.

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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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