Interviews for Resistance: Workers Are on the Frontlines of Making Sure Banks Don’t Rip Us Off

Sarah Jaffe March 7, 2017

"What we have argued is that bank workers, in the same way in a hospital a nurse is a frontline on quality care, that bank workers can be the frontline on making sure that banks aren’t cheating and robbing people," says Stephen Lerner, a longtime organizer. (Photo provided by Stephen Lerner)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. Since elec­tion night 2016, the streets of the Unit­ed States have rung with resis­tance. Peo­ple all over the coun­try have wok­en up with the con­vic­tion that they must do some­thing to fight inequal­i­ty in all its forms. But many are won­der­ing what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talk­ing with expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fight­ing for a long time. They’ll be shar­ing their insights on what works, what does­n’t, what has changed and what is still the same.

Stephen Lern­er: My name is Stephen Lern­er. I am a fel­low at Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Ini­tia­tive for Labor and the Work­ing Poor. I work on the Hedge­Clip­pers and bank work­ers and a num­ber of dif­fer­ent cam­paigns that are all focused on look­ing up the mon­ey tree at who is real­ly run­ning the pol­i­tics and the econ­o­my of the country. 

Sarah Jaffe: Let’s start with the bank work­ers because the bank work­ers just kicked off a union drive.

Stephen: The bank work­ers cam­paign is real­ly inter­est­ing, because what most peo­ple don’t real­ize is banks in most coun­tries in the world are sig­nif­i­cant­ly union­ized. We have a three-pronged cam­paign. One has been broad­ly build­ing work­er com­mit­tees in banks in the Unit­ed States. One of the first real vic­to­ries of that is the bank work­ers cam­paign, the Com­mit­tee for Bet­ter Banks, the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA), and a whole series of com­mu­ni­ty groups, which we will come back to, were the whis­tle-blow­ers on the Wells Far­go scan­dal, where they were open­ing fake accounts.

There is an ongo­ing, grow­ing cam­paign with work­ers in all the major U.S. banks, but what we are focus­ing on now is a bank called San­tander, which a Span­ish-owned bank which is, again, union in most coun­tries in the world and heav­i­ly union­ized in Brazil and Argenti­na. In the Unit­ed States they are pri­mar­i­ly a north­east­ern bank, but they are also a big nation­al sub­prime auto lender. There is now a glob­al demand on the bank that they agree not to fight the union and be neu­tral, the same in the Unit­ed States as they do in oth­er coun­tries. What was real­ly excit­ing in the kick-off, and sort of unheard of, is an addi­tion to the tra­di­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty actions, let­ters and pick­ets, in Argenti­na and Brazil, work­ers actu­al­ly walked off the job and did shut­downs of bank branch­es and oth­er cen­ters, demand­ing the bank not inter­fere with work­ers’ rights to orga­nize unions in the Unit­ed States.

What has been fas­ci­nat­ing about the cam­paign both here in the Unit­ed States and bank work­ers in oth­er unions, there has always been a dual demand. The tra­di­tion­al demand about how work­ers should be paid and treat­ed decent­ly, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly that work­ers should not be forced to sell preda­to­ry prod­ucts or cheat peo­ple as a con­di­tion of employ­ment. What we have argued is that bank work­ers, in the same way in a hos­pi­tal a nurse is a front­line on qual­i­ty care, that bank work­ers can be the front­line on mak­ing sure that banks aren’t cheat­ing and rob­bing people.

That is why the work with Wells Far­go has been so excit­ing, because lit­er­al­ly tens of thou­sands of work­ers have signed peti­tions say­ing these out­ra­geous sales goals could only be met if they cheat­ed cus­tomers. One part is work­ers as whis­tle-blow­ers, work­ers as a front­line in say­ing, What the bank is doing is bad.” Then, As work­ers, we don’t want to par­tic­i­pate in a scheme where the bank makes mon­ey by cheat­ing people.”

Sarah: One of the things that is inter­est­ing about this is the con­nec­tion with these inter­na­tion­al unions that rep­re­sent bank work­ers. When we talk about glob­al­iza­tion, jobs mov­ing around the world and pro­gres­sive solu­tions to Trump’s nation­al­ism, inter­na­tion­al cam­paigns like this are a real­ly inter­est­ing start­ing point.

Stephen: As some­one who has done a lot of orga­niz­ing where we ask unions in oth­er coun­tries to sup­port work­ers in the Unit­ed States who orga­nize in glob­al com­pa­nies, what is unique about the bank work­ers orga­niz­ing is the Brazil­ian bank work­ers, which I think are the biggest bank work­ers union in the world and one of the most pro­gres­sive, have aggres­sive­ly and won­der­ful­ly called on the Amer­i­can labor move­ment to orga­nize bank work­ers. It is not just out of sol­i­dar­i­ty. They can­not main­tain the stan­dards they have won in Brazil and around the world if the largest coun­try with the biggest finance indus­try is non-union.

It is almost hal­lu­cino­genic to have work­ers in so-called devel­op­ing coun­tries say that their wages and ben­e­fits are threat­ened by the lev­el of non-union staff in the Unit­ed States. There is this fan­tas­tic group led by the Brazil­ian bank work­ers and UNI, the glob­al bank work­er fed­er­a­tion, that is work­ing both to sup­port the cam­paign and pres­sure the com­pa­ny, but also, around the globe has lift­ed up this call, which I think is real­ly unusu­al for unions about work­ers not being pres­sured to cheat peo­ple as a con­di­tion of employment.

There have been meet­ings all over the world on this and a real com­mit­ment to doing con­crete stuff to pres­sure the bank. We are going to be going to the San­tander share­hold­er meet­ing in Spain. We have done a series of reports that have been expos­ing Santander’s bad prac­tices, rang­ing from their role in both the Puer­to Rican debt cri­sis, their role in sub­prime auto. They just failed their Com­mu­ni­ty Rein­vest­ment Act test and we did a report on that. Again, we are build­ing a cam­paign not just about what is good for work­ers, but about work­ers who will make the com­pa­ny health­i­er in terms of how it engages with cus­tomers and consumers.

Essen­tial­ly, the Com­mu­ni­ty Rein­vest­ment Act [CRA] requires, in sim­plest terms, banks to pro­vide resources to the com­mu­ni­ties that they are in, to invest in. We did a report first that showed that their lend­ing prac­tices ignored or skipped over poor com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. There is a test that is done under the CRA Act to see if you have giv­en enough mon­ey or loaned enough mon­ey. The bank failed it. The bank also failed the stress test. We think there is a rela­tion­ship between mis­treat­ment of work­ers and the under­pin­nings of the bank being threat­ened because they are engaged in all sorts of risky prac­tices that may make them a lit­tle bit of mon­ey in the short run, but then blow up on their face in the long run.

Sarah: One of the things that con­nects a lot of the work you do is map­ping where the pow­er and the mon­ey comes from for bad poli­cies and bad politi­cians. Those are poli­cies that are bi-par­ti­san, we should say. In the age of Trump, in par­tic­u­lar, talk about the impor­tance of this kind of work and why it is impor­tant to know who is fund­ing your politicians.

Stephen: The Hedge­Clip­pers cam­paign looks at hedge funds and pri­vate equi­ty, thus hedge clip­pers clip­ping their pow­er. It basi­cal­ly says, These are the finance cap­i­tal­ists that are dri­ving polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty.” What we have done is both deep dive reports, expos­es, lots of direct action to direct­ly con­front them. Our lit­tle joke is that we have either been incred­i­bly pre­scient or Trump picked his entire Cab­i­net by look­ing at who we have been fight­ing. Pre-Trump win­ning, we were say­ing whether it is Gold­man Sachs or Steven Schwarz­man from Black­stone, these are the peo­ple who are real­ly run­ning the gov­ern­ment. Lots of folks are laugh­ing say­ing we are a con­spir­a­cy cult or some­thing. Then, when Trump got elect­ed, he put all of these peo­ple direct­ly in charge. It is sort of an irony that Trump’s elec­tion was prob­a­bly the best tes­ti­mo­ny to the idea that whether Dems or Repub­li­cans — that a play­er is real­ly who is run­ning the show.

We are doing a lot of work on map­ping the dif­fer­ent Trump worlds. There are the peo­ple, like Mnuchin and the Gold­man Sachs folks that are direct­ly in the admin­is­tra­tion and we map all the ben­e­fits that their com­pa­nies will reap from that. Then, there are the Steve Schwarz­mans and the Carl Icahns and this oth­er set of play­ers that run com­mit­tees for him. So, they can essen­tial­ly cre­ate gov­ern­ment poli­cies that will fur­ther enrich their com­pa­nies. Then, there is a third set of peo­ple like John Paul­son, who made all his mon­ey in the hous­ing cri­sis, who may not be direct­ly work­ing for Trump, but who sup­port­ed him and is now going to reap the ben­e­fits. For exam­ple, he is heav­i­ly invest­ed in Puer­to Rico.

What we have been look­ing at is, how do you iden­ti­fy the cor­po­rate col­lab­o­ra­tors with Trump, and then look at ways to start putting pres­sure on them so that they pay a price for the fact that they are in bed with Trump?

One thing is that many of these folks who are in bed with Trump have sig­nif­i­cant invest­ments from pub­lic employ­ee pen­sion plans and col­lege endow­ments. We have been ongo­ing run­ning the cam­paign say­ing that pen­sion funds and endow­ments basi­cal­ly are get­ting lousy deals from these guys, mean­ing they pay a lot of mon­ey to invest in them and they get lousy returns. We are going to esca­late that, but we are also going to look at some of the hedge funds that have real­ly atro­cious poli­cies and raise the issue that col­leges and pen­sion plans shouldn’t invest in racist com­pa­nies. For exam­ple, this guy Robert Mer­cer whose fam­i­ly owns part of Bre­it­bart. They are Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­i­ca, the secret polling appa­ra­tus for Trump. I think it is the city of Prov­i­dence in Rhode Island has invest­ed in one of his funds.

We want to start rais­ing the issue for a bunch of these peo­ple that we should cut off their cap­i­tal. Basi­cal­ly, pub­lic dol­lars or the dol­lars of pro­gres­sive insti­tu­tions shouldn’t be invest­ed in them. Anoth­er thing we are doing is we have been intro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion on a state-by-state basis to tax the car­ried inter­est exemp­tion. This is a loop­hole that lets them take the reg­u­lar income that most peo­ple pay 30 – 35 per­cent on and they get to take 15 per­cent. I won’t bore you with the details of how they do it, except it is an $18 bil­lion a year tax loophole.

Tax­ing it on a state lev­el, on the one hand in New York it would pro­duce $3.7 bil­lion in rev­enue, but the oth­er thing it does is it cuts off their cap­i­tal. One of the rea­sons they can give so much mon­ey polit­i­cal­ly is because they have a spe­cial tax loop­hole that gives them $18 bil­lion in cash to play with. One of the ways we can hurt them is cut­ting off tax breaks and cut­ting off invest­ment. I think there is a sweet irony of their greed in get­ting in bed with Trump may make them much more sus­cep­ti­ble to cut­ting off their capital.

Anoth­er thing was real­ly illus­trat­ed on the CWA Momen­tive Strike, which was a long strike in upstate New York. When peo­ple real­ized that Blackstone’s Steve Schwarz­man had been involved in invest­ing in the com­pa­ny and focused on him, it changed the nature of the strike. Instead of it being an iso­lat­ed bat­tle, it was Trump’s job czar is actu­al­ly involved in cut­ting wages, ben­e­fits, and out­sourc­ing work. This is one of the pieces that I think is the most crit­i­cal, which is show­ing that the peo­ple that Trump has put in charge, like Wilbur Ross, are actu­al­ly job destroy­ers. We want to com­plete­ly change the sto­ry by putting the spot­light on them by say­ing, These are actu­al­ly the peo­ple that got rich destroy­ing good jobs. It is not evil for­eign­ers or immi­grants. It is these guys.” That lets you raise a whole set of issues in terms of show­ing who they are and then, all the dif­fer­ent ways that they gamed the sys­tem to enrich them­selves at the expense of workers.

Sarah: This goes back to work that you were doing before the finan­cial cri­sis with­in SEIU [Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union], right?

Stephen: Yes. Going back to SEIU in 2007, we looked at the pri­vate equi­ty indus­try and real­ized that if you look at the com­pa­nies they own, which are called port­fo­lio com­pa­nies, that six of the ten largest employ­ers in the Unit­ed States are pri­vate equi­ty com­pa­nies. Most peo­ple don’t know that there is this giant mon­stros­i­ty at the top that actu­al­ly owns it. What gets real­ly inter­est­ing is if you look at a com­pa­ny like Black­stone, they own a hotel, they own man­u­fac­tur­ing, they are the biggest apart­ment own­er in the coun­try now. It lets you look at how you might cam­paign on them on mul­ti­ple lev­els. You can cam­paign by orga­niz­ing their non-union work­ers. This is what you get for being in the Trump Amen Cho­rus, every­body looks more deeply at your com­pa­nies. They own retail out­lets, they own apart­ments, they are tax avoiders.

There is an incred­i­ble oppor­tu­ni­ty, to use the word of the day, inter­sec­tion­al­ly,” to say to a whole set of dif­fer­ent groups, Why not focus all of our ener­gy on a cou­ple of these char­ac­ters as a way to both build a broad­er move­ment, but also tell the sto­ry about how they use their wealth to game the sys­tem and the more they game the sys­tem, the rich­er they get.” I think Schwarz­man is worth $11 bil­lion and just had his 70th birth­day par­ty where they spent tens of mil­lions. It also lets you tell the sto­ry of the grotesque­ness of these peo­ple. It was so fas­ci­nat­ing to find work­ers, some of whom vot­ed for Trump, are sort of stunned when they find out that the guys destroy­ing their jobs are who Trump has put in charge.

Sarah: This cam­paign­ing has been going on around the Dako­ta Access Pipeline with peo­ple and cities, in fact, divest­ing from Wells Far­go and oth­er banks that are invest­ed in that pipeline.

Stephen: Wells Far­go work­ers exposed how they were cheat­ing con­sumers, but there is now a cam­paign called Forego Wells. Sur­prise, sur­prise, there is a web­site Fore​goW​ells​.org. What it is say­ing is, Let’s look at the total­i­ty of Wells Far­go.” They treat their work­ers ter­ri­bly. They rob con­sumers. They are a fun­der of the Dako­ta Access Pipeline. They fund pri­vate pris­ons. They fund, in some way, pay­day lend­ing. Again, the idea here is say­ing, There are an unlim­it­ed num­ber of bad guys out there, but what­ev­er your issue is, let’s pile on a cou­ple of the most dom­i­nant play­ers.” And remem­ber that Elaine Chao, who now is Head of Trans­porta­tion, she was on the board of Wells Far­go dur­ing all of the scan­dals. Again, what you basi­cal­ly have is one of the board mem­bers of Wells Far­go now in the Trump cab­i­net and this com­pa­ny cap­tures almost every­thing that is wrong with what is going on in this coun­try. Wells Far­go is a won­der­ful exam­ple of the cor­rup­tion and debase­ment of the sys­tem. They have bind­ing arbi­tra­tion. If you have an account with them, you auto­mat­i­cal­ly give up the right to sue them. When they ille­gal­ly opened up accounts for peo­ple, when peo­ple attempt­ed to sue about that ille­gal­ly opened account, the bank said, Well, your ille­gal­ly opened account has a bind­ing arbi­tra­tion pro­ce­dure. There­fore, you can’t sue us on the ille­gal­ly opened account.” You can’t make this stuff up.

A big part of our work is basi­cal­ly say­ing, Trump has sur­round­ed him­self with these set of play­ers. That is who they real­ly are. Let’s look at all of the way they screw peo­ple that are the oppo­site of Trump.” The way I think about it is, we have to make Trump guilty of every evil and sin they com­mit. If Trump picked Elaine Chao, then he is sup­port­ing fake accounts. He is sup­port­ing all these things. On the oth­er hand, any­body who asso­ciates with Trump has to be guilty of all of his sins. So, Jamie Dimon from JPMor­gan and Lloyd Blank­fein from Gold­man Sachs like to pre­tend they are at least social pro­gres­sives. Gary Cohn who is a Gold­man Sachs guy who went over to the admin­is­tra­tion stood behind Trump when he signed the Mus­lim ban. We need to hold Gold­man Sachs account­able. Gold­man Sachs and their peo­ple are behind anti-immi­grant and Mus­lim bash­ing. I think there is a fan­tas­tic oppor­tu­ni­ty to force these con­tra­dic­tions, dri­ve some wedges in the rul­ing class, and real­ly tell the sto­ry about what used to be secret. These are the guys that are run­ning both the econ­o­my and the government.

Sarah: Some peo­ple who are read­ing or lis­ten­ing to this are famil­iar with what went on in Greece and oth­er coun­tries that got the short end of the aus­ter­i­ty agen­da. Puer­to Rico is a lit­tle bit clos­er to home, it is our gov­ern­ment who is doing this to Puer­to Rico with the help of all of these same peo­ple that we have just been talk­ing about.

Stephen: Before I get into the detail of Puer­to Rico, I think the way to think about this is glob­al­ly — first, with the IMF [Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund]. They took devel­op­ing coun­tries and basi­cal­ly used the Shock Doc­trine to dev­as­tate the economies of those coun­tries and enforce aus­ter­i­ty. Then, they have exper­i­ment­ed in Greece and oth­er coun­tries on how you enforce aus­ter­i­ty and over­rule demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol and now the Unit­ed States, we are exper­i­ment­ing with the same thing, which is how you pur­pose­ly make a place broke. Then, when it is broke you say, We need to put an emer­gency con­trol board and get rid of demo­c­ra­t­ic rule.” Then, once you get rid of demo­c­ra­t­ic rule, you can basi­cal­ly turn it into a par­adise for the rich.

The sto­ry they would tell is that Puer­to Rico bor­rowed $70 bil­lion, is hope­less­ly in debt, and now they need, like the Greeks, to pay the piper, to pay the mon­ey back. The first thing is that Puer­to Rico didn’t bor­row $70 bil­lion dol­lars. Puer­to Rico, with the help of San­tander Bank and Gold­man Sachs, did a series of loans that are essen­tial­ly the equiv­a­lent of a pay­day loan for a coun­try. One of the loans that they did, they bor­rowed $3.5 or $4 bil­lion. This is all on the Refund Amer­i­ca site. But, the pay­back is $33 bil­lion. It was essen­tial­ly how a loan was cre­at­ed that could be hid­den off the books because you don’t pay the mon­ey for years. You bor­row $4 bil­lion, you owe $33 bil­lion. The banks and hedge funds know­ing­ly cre­at­ed loans that cre­at­ed huge prof­its for them that Puer­to Rico couldn’t pay back.

Again, the best way to think about them is as a pay­day loan. One of the best exam­ples of this is San­tander Bank, who we talked about ear­li­er, was the under­writer for many, many of these loans. They made huge prof­its on it. What the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has done is set up a con­trol board to basi­cal­ly enforce aus­ter­i­ty in Puer­to Rico. The two head prin­ci­ple guys of the con­trol board are from San­tander Bank. These guys that basi­cal­ly cre­at­ed the debt and the loans and got rich on it now are adju­di­cat­ing that the only way to fix the econ­o­my is cuts that are actu­al­ly greater than Greece. They are the ones who are decid­ing who gets paid and doesn’t get paid. Essen­tial­ly, the issue in Puer­to Rico, like almost every­where is, Why should banks and hedge funds and oth­ers get paid mega returns when the result of that is a dev­as­ta­tion of the island?”

They have also adopt­ed a thing where basi­cal­ly if a mil­lion­aire lives there part-time, they don’t have to pay any tax. They are cre­at­ing an econ­o­my where the rich pay almost no tax. Where the tax­es for every­body else goes up dra­mat­i­cal­ly and now they are mov­ing in on low­er­ing the min­i­mum wage. Their real goal is to turn Puer­to Rico into a play­ground for the super-rich.

Sarah: This was all under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. What can we expect from Trump on this front?

Stephen: I think it has final­ly hap­pened that the Puer­to Rican gov­ern­ment has actu­al­ly hired … Corey Lewandows­ki to try to open doors on the hill. John Paul­son, who I brought up ear­li­er, who is a Trump sup­port­er and who made his $15 bil­lion on the hous­ing cri­sis, is buy­ing up hotels and prop­er­ty all over Puer­to Rico at a dis­count. I think the first thing to real­ize is a bunch of peo­ple that are in the Trump world either are buy­ing prop­er­ty there or have invest­ments in hedge funds there.

In the bill that cre­at­ed a con­trol board, there were cer­tain things that were sup­posed to pro­tect pen­sions and oth­er things, I think you could imag­ine all of that get­ting much worse, whether it is just in cli­mate or in actu­al­ly chang­ing the law. I think under Trump, it will just be worse because at least in the old admin­is­tra­tion, there was the rhetoric of We have to cre­ate a sus­tain­able econ­o­my.” In this case, there is no illu­sion. The island is just increas­ing­ly going to be depop­u­lat­ed as peo­ple flee to the Unit­ed States in search of work.

Sarah: At least peo­ple com­ing from Puer­to Rico are U.S. citizens …

Stephen: I don’t know if you saw that in Chica­go, there was a Puer­to Rican cit­i­zen of the Unit­ed States that was held for three days by ICE because they didn’t believe he was a citizen.

Sarah: It is worth not­ing that the Puer­to Rico sit­u­a­tion is par­tic­u­lar, but that many of the peo­ple who are com­ing to this coun­try to find jobs are doing it because we, more or less, did some­thing sim­i­lar to their coun­tries at some point.

Stephen: There are two things I have heard that are inter­est­ing. One, at the turn of the last cen­tu­ry, peo­ple talked about how it was big sug­ar and agri­cul­ture and all that that basi­cal­ly sucked all the mon­ey out of Puer­to Rico and now it is finance. The key thing about Puer­to Rico is this is an exper­i­ment hap­pen­ing in a colony or a ter­ri­to­ry of the Unit­ed States that they want to export, which is you make lots of mon­ey dri­ving a place into bank­rupt­cy and you seize con­trol of it through con­trol boards. This is Flint. This is Detroit. Then, once you are in con­trol, you not only suck more mon­ey out from aus­ter­i­ty, but then you cre­ate a sys­tem that puts cor­po­ra­tions com­plete­ly in con­trol. You pri­va­tize every­thing. Part of the law in Puer­to Rico not only says you can pay under the U.S. min­i­mum wage, it also says that you don’t have to do envi­ron­men­tal impact state­ments. You can just build stuff more quick­ly. I think the rea­son that peo­ple should care about Puer­to Rico is, one, because it is hor­rif­ic as a human­i­tar­i­an and eco­nom­ic cri­sis, but this is the begin­ning of what they would like to do in Chica­go, what they would like to do in all sorts of places here, which is, sig­nif­i­cant­ly in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, find­ing ways to gain com­plete con­trol of the econ­o­my and the politics.

Sarah: Peo­ple want to talk about Ger­many and Italy and Fas­cism and Nazism and cer­tain­ly we have peo­ple like Richard Spencer walk­ing around and Steve Ban­non at the White House, it is impor­tant to know glob­al his­to­ry, but also we need to know our own his­to­ry and some of the lessons for under­stand­ing come from things that hap­pened in the past. I want­ed to ask you to talk a lit­tle bit more about what the lessons that we are miss­ing right here at home are.

Stephen: The start­ing point that I think you real­ly hit on is there is a lit­tle bit of this rhetoric and shock at how could this hap­pen in Amer­i­ca? How could we have an immi­grant ban? How could we have this out-of-con­trol racism? In some ways, it is kind of bizarre because we don’t need to look to Ger­many and Italy. We just need to look to our own past. In many ways, this is Amer­i­can as apple pie. If you think back 100 years to both the pre- and post-World War I peri­od, you had a very fas­ci­nat­ing set of things hap­pen­ing. One, you had the grow­ing indus­tri­al­iza­tion that total­ly changed labor-man­age­ment rela­tion­ships. You had grow­ing giant fac­to­ries, you had huge immi­gra­tion, you had grow­ing left move­ments. When you look at the reac­tion to that, it was vil­i­fy­ing immi­grants and com­mu­nists and social­ists and anar­chists. There was a huge strike out west where they lit­er­al­ly put every­body in box­cars and deport­ed them.

What is fas­ci­nat­ing about that peri­od is one, how the state used its appa­ra­tus to attack the left and immi­grants and cre­ate the fear. Then, it wasn’t Islam. It was evil for­eign­ers and com­mu­nists and all of that. But the lev­el of repres­sion was extra­or­di­nary. The oth­er part of it is the lev­el of resis­tance. The giant steel strikes and the L.A. Times was blown up by the McNa­ma­ra Broth­ers. That is a famous case because Clarence Dar­row was the attor­ney and it was the iron work­ers union and every­body said it was a frame and then they basi­cal­ly they said, Yes, we did do it.” But, to cap­ture the inten­si­ty of strug­gle. Peo­ple didn’t say, Oh, the state appa­ra­tus is real­ly bad” or Peo­ple might get deport­ed,” there were huge strikes. This was actu­al­ly when the ACLU was found­ed under a dif­fer­ent name in that peri­od. There was incred­i­ble class con­flict. There is a book that Joseph McCartin from George­town wrote that I am just read­ing, so I can’t ful­ly say what he says, but I think look­ing at that both gives us a win­dow into the kind of repres­sion that we will face, but also what peo­ple did in response.

What Joe McCartin argues in his book is even though many of the big strikes and things were lost in that peri­od, he refers to it as the dress rehearsal for the CIO, that those bat­tles and the rela­tion­ships peo­ple made and what peo­ple learned in those fights cre­at­ed the con­scious­ness and the rela­tion­ships and an under­stand­ing of the sys­tem that made it pos­si­ble for peo­ple then to engage, even dur­ing the Depres­sion and post-Depres­sion, in mass struggle.

I think that is an area that we need to look at both as guid­ance to what they would do and then guid­ance about the impor­tance of direct­ly con­fronting and fight­ing it. In the south, if you actu­al­ly think about the 1940s and 1950s and Jim Crow, it was an apartheid state where the so-called rule of law was irrel­e­vant. The strug­gle of both black work­ers and union cam­paigns, again, I think shows that we don’t need to think of Ger­many or Italy, whether it is lynch­ings or shoot­ings or jail­ings. If peo­ple hadn’t stood up to that at tremen­dous risk in their dark­est of times — that cre­at­ed the con­di­tions that allowed the Civ­il Rights Move­ment to grow lat­er. Peo­ple for­get that the Civ­il Rights Move­ment wasn’t just … Rosa Parks sat on the bus and every­thing hap­pened. That there were years of deep orga­niz­ing and strug­gles. I think look­ing at those two peri­ods is help­ful in under­stand­ing what has hap­pened in Amer­i­ca in the past and then also how fight­ing it sets the stage for vic­to­ries later.

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you and the dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions that you have mentioned?

Stephen: One, there is a group called lit​tle​sis​.org which, as they say, they are the oppo­site of Big Broth­er. They are doing fan­tas­tic work on map­ping rela­tion­ships with Trump. The oth­er is hedge​clip​pers​.org has now 45 reports on the evil doers and also are spon­sor­ing all sorts of direct action and oth­er cam­paigns around divest­ment. There is also the Refund Amer­i­ca Project, which is refun​damer​i​ca​.org that Saqib Bhat­ti and Mau­rice Weeks run, which is real­ly look­ing at Puer­to Rico and munic­i­pal debt. Then, there is bar​gain​ing​forthecom​mon​good​.org, which is a cam­paign where unions and com­mu­ni­ty groups are going to the bar­gain­ing table togeth­er and say­ing that in addi­tion to decent wages and ben­e­fits, we want to bar­gain about the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic issues in our com­mu­ni­ties. Then, my name is Stephen Lern­er. You can fol­low me on Twitter.

The moment that we are in, I think, is: How do we pick out a cou­ple of cor­po­ra­tions that are tied to Trump and are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly inter­sect­ing with dif­fer­ent move­ments? How do we pick a set of com­pa­nies and peo­ple with­in those com­pa­nies and real­ly focus in on what they are doing and look at ways that not just embar­rass them, but we cut off their cap­i­tal and real­ly impact their busi­ness­es and say, On the one hand, you may in the short-run get rich off of the deal­ings of Trump, but in the long-run you are plant­i­ng the seeds to your own destruction.”

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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