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

Sarah Jaffe

"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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