Stephen Lerner is a hard person to admire. His specialty, after all, is economic sabotage. Yet his utility to the cause of public accountability is undeniable. Lerner, a longtime official with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) until his supposed ouster last November, was caught on March 18 and 19 on audiotape speaking before a closed-session audience at Pace University in Manhattan describing an SEIU plan to destabilize the U.S. economy. The campaign, which he heads, intends to take down the financial sector and trigger a massive redistribution of wealth and power. Cynics might note that it was The Blaze, the website started last summer by bombastic TV host Glenn Beck, which posted the recordings. Yet the tapes sound completely undoctored and spontaneous. And they ought to raise questions about the leadership of the SEIU, especially under President Andrew Stern (see photo), who departed a year ago.
The Service Employees International Union has been the fastest-growing major union in America during the last few decades, indeed one of the few unions growing at all. First under future AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and then under Sweeney protégé Andrew Stern, the SEIU developed and refined its unique brand of take-no-prisoners organizing and political action. By virtue of its corporate campaigns, financial shakedowns and mergers, the union now represents more than 2 million workers. Stern, who ran the union from 1996 until last spring, was a tireless evangelist for union membership-building as a path to political power and economic restructuring. His zeal led to a split by the SEIU in the summer of 2005 from the AFL-CIO, along with a half-dozen other unions. A couple months later, the rump faction formed a new federation, Change to Win.
But radicalism, as much as organizing, is an SEIU calling card. The union has played an intimate role in the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch following President Clinton stepping down from office in 1999. Every recent initiative to socialize the U.S. economy in some way bears the imprint of the SEIU and its network of community, civil rights, antiwar, environmental, religious and other activists. In particular, the union has forged since the Eighties close ties to the now-defunct radical nonprofit, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. Founder and chief organizer of ACORN (until his forced departure in 2008) Wade Rathke is chief organizer for SEIU Local 100, which represents several thousand employees in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. A former SEIU operative, Patrick Gaspard, served as Obama White House political director until this past January (he’s now executive director of the Democratic National Committee). And during 2009 and the early months of 2010 Andrew Stern was a White House lobbyist all but in name, negotiating the massively expensive health care overhaul that Democratic leaders in Congress eventually strong-armed into passage and put on President Obama’s desk last March for a quick signature.
One of the more noteworthy SEIU projects has been something called Justice for Janitors. From its mid-Eighties beginnings in Denver, this campaign has employed extreme intimidation against hotel and other high-rise building contractors in major cities to secure area master contracts on behalf of nonunion workers, a great many of whom are Hispanic immigrants. Justice for Janitors rallies at various points in time have become a fixture in downtown areas. With their screaming, chanting, canister noisemaking and sidewalk blockading (among other tactics), they’re hard for anyone in the area to miss. SEIU headquarters usually got the trigger agreement it sought, and where necessary, replaced non-participating local leaders with trustees. Of more than passing interest was the SEIU organizer who got the ball rolling in Denver a quarter century ago: Stephen Lerner.
Lerner actually began as an organizer for the United Farm Workers. He learned about guerrilla theater protest with the UFW, and quickly transferred those skills to Justice for Janitors campaigns, right down to adopting the UFW rallying cry, “!Si, se puede!” (“Yes, it can be done!”) Service Employees headquarters eventually would make him director of its janitorial services division. The financial meltdown of 2008 led him to believe that the entire U.S. economy needed a makeover and that his union would be the ideal change agent. The time to “destabilize the country,” as he termed it, was now.
According to Lerner, Wall Street brokerages and major investors had stolen $17 trillion from the American middle class. The antidote would be a highly-coordinated union-run “strike” against repayment of mortgage, student and local government debt in hopes of bringing banks to their knees. Facing insolvency, lenders at that point would be forced to renegotiate with noncompliant borrowers, in turn, triggering nationwide economic collapse and political turmoil. The banking class now decimated, the country would be ripe for an overdue radical transfer of income, wealth and power. Ground Zero would be JPMorgan Chase in May 2011, replete with Wall Street demonstrations, annual shareholder meeting protests and ultimately, a mortgage strike. Though the campaign would be run by the SEIU and allied unions, Lerner emphasized, it was important to keep this fact in deep background and have selected community groups serve as fronts. Lerner’s five-point plan for undermining the economy, in his own words, consists of:
Using political and economic power to ‘renegotiate’ with Wall Street and raise revenue for cities and states
Getting governments to refuse to do business with banks that ‘refuse to pay their fair share’
Getting homeowners and students to engage in a ‘loan’ strike (refusing to pay their loans)
Calling on government-sector union members to vote to strike
Using the private-sector union movement to politicize and transform narrow bargaining “into a vehicle to make unions relevant again.”
He was equally explicit during his Pace University presentation. The following is a transcript of key sections, as posted on The Blaze on March 22. For the sake of skepticism, it’s worth noting that Wall Street analyst Henry Blodget in Business Insider wrote that day: “We have heard the tape, but we have not independently verified that the voice in Lerner’s.” But even allowing for the remote possibility that the voice belongs to someone else, the significance of the tape can’t be dismissed. There are SEIU people who really do want to bring down the economy, and their language is very much in the spirit of the tape. Here are a few samples of somewhat rambling monologue by Lerner following the moderator’s introduction:
Moderator: We’re going to hear from Steve Lerner next, of SEIU, the architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign. Currently, he’s working on partnering with unions and groups in Europe and South America. He’s building campaigns to hold financial institutions accountable.
Lerner: It seems to me that we’re in a moment where we need to figure out in a much more, through direct action, much more concrete way how we really are trying to disrupt and create uncertainty for capital, for how corporations operate. And it may sound like that’s a crazy thing that in a moment of weakness we could deal with it, but the thing about a boom and bust economy, it is actually incredibly fragile because it’s not based on real money…it’s based on gambling and all of that. And so there are actually extraordinary things that we could do right now that would start to destabilize the folks that are in power and start to rebuild a movement. And for example, 10% of homeowners, going back to where you started, who are under, a quarter of all people who own a home are underwater, right? Their home is under water; they’re paying more for it than it’s worth. Ten percent of those people are now in strategic default, meaning they’re refusing to pay but they’re staying in their homes. That’s totally spontaneous, right?…
And so the question would be: What would happen if we organized homeowners en masse to do a mortgage strike? Just say if we get a half million people to agree…we won’t pay our mortgages. It would literally cause a new financial crisis…
If we really thought about moving to the kind of disruption in Madison, but moving that to Wall Street and moving that to other cities around the country where we basically said you stole $17 trillion, you’ve impoverished us and we’re going to make it impossible for you to operate…Every article about Europe says (after) a riot in Greece, the markets went down. The folks that control this country are about one thing: how the stock market does, how the bond market does, and what their bonus is. So I think we need to (work) out a very simple strategy: How do we bring down the stock market, how do we bring down their bonuses, how to we interfere with their ability to be rich. And…that means you have to politically isolate them, economically isolate them and disrupt them…
So, a bunch of us around the country are thinking about who would be a really good company to hate? We decided that would be JPMorgan Chase…And so we’re going to roll out the next couple of months what will be hopefully an exciting campaign about JPMorgan Chase that is really about challenging the power of Wall Street. And so what we’re looking at is in the first week of May. We get enough people together – and we’re starting now – to really have a week of action in New York with the goal of…I don’t want to go into any details because I don’t know which police agents are in the room, but the goal would be that we would roll out in New York the first week in May.
There’s not much doubt about it: This guy wants a revolution. And apparently, he’s been at work trying to foment it. By last fall he’d burned through millions of dollars of SEIU cash effecting his five-point plan. In response, an alarmed, public-relations conscious union, by then under the helm of President Mary Kay Henry, fired him in November. Or did it? The moderator, after all, did introduce him as “of SEIU.” And ex-ACORN chieftain and SEIU ally Wade Rathke stated on his blog that Lerner merely had been placed on leave and was present at a recent international union executive board meeting. Even if Lerner was fired, it would appear to be a classic case of a cosmetic change from employee to “consultant.” His cover blown, the planned May Revolution will be delayed for a while. But that hardly means he and his compatriots are toothless.
What does all this say about the leadership of the Service Employees International Union under Andrew Stern and now Mary Kay Henry? Good question. The union has never been reticent about its political radicalism. And it believes, as does its friends in the Obama administration, in not letting a good crisis go to waste. The best guess is that it will lay low for a while and push Stephen Lerner into the background. The efforts to attack and destabilize will continue.
As for Glenn Beck, now preparing to leave his daily late-afternoon talk show on the Fox News Channel for greener pastures — granted, he’s a consummate showman and at times too much so. He’s got a trunk load of conspiracy theories, some of them sound and others unsound. But that doesn’t mean he is dishonest or stupid. Projecting questionable motives onto a person or group isn’t the same thing as inventing facts out of whole cloth or not grasping their meaning. And the facts of this case speak clearly: The SEIU, more than ever, is a union to be mistrusted.