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Originally posted on Jspot.org.
In the United States during the 1930s, revolution was in the air. With the stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression, the broken economy was failing most Americans. This gave rise to a spectrum of responses, providing communists and socialists on the left and fascists on the right with a compelling argument that capitalism and democracy were fundamentally flawed. With millions unemployed and living in poverty, people were primed for change.
But in the United States, the revolution never came. Capitalism survived the 1930s. So did democracy.
Instead, the calls for social change compelled President Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. Congress to pass sweeping reforms, while the Supreme Court provided the new laws with a constitutional seal of approval. Today, the reforms of the New Deal remain vital to America’s compact with its citizens: part safety net, part ladder of opportunity.
Since 2008, economic conditions have sparked new movements for change. Organizers behind the Tea Party conservatives, the Ron Paul libertarians and isolationists, and Occupy Wall Street’s anti-corporatists all believe another world is possible. The messages are simple and clear. “End the Fed” the libertarians proclaim. “Tax the Rich” the occupiers chant. “Seal the border” the tea partiers insist.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews were attracted to revolutionary, utopian movements like socialism and communism. Anti-Semitism made life hard for Jews, and the idea that we could create a more just society in which Jews and other embattled communities would be accepted as equals was very appealing.
Eventually, though, utopianism lost its luster for most American Jews. The revolutions of the 20th century often turned out to be more dangerous than the flawed societies they replaced. Both Stalin and Hitler inspired followers with their visions of utopia. Reform, not revolution, became the norm for American Jews.
Today, iin economic and soical conditions reminiscent of the 1930s, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is generating considerable excitement and some nervousness among American Jews. On the one hand, its critique of economic inequality and of a political system that excludes most voices from civic discourse resonates with the community’s liberal majority. On the other hand, Jews have often been scapegoated during economic crises, accused of being puppet masters behind the scenes.
So, what’s a Jew to do?
We can take a lesson from the 1930s, and advance an aggressive reform agenda that addresses the critique of structural inequality put forward by Occupy Wall Street.
[I]income inequality is grinding down [the] middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people… [T]he financial sector, with regulators and elected officials in collusion, inflated and profited from a credit bubble that burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity. … [E]lected officials’ hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street… has reaffirmed the economic and political power of banks and bankers, while ordinary Americans suffer… [The] dysfunctional economy [is] dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment.
If we agree with this assessment, we should be sympathetic to the voices of Occupy Wall Street. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to create a more just society. The potential strategies are limitless. In Boston, for example, the Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods (SUN) initiative has prevented more than 125 homeowners from being evicted by helping them repurchase their homes with affordable fixed-rate mortgages.
Occupy Wall Street is many things. It is an opportunity for regular people to share their frustrations with an economic system that no longer works for them. It is a mechanism for mobilizing individuals to collectively confront powerful interests. And Occupy Wall Street is a new town square where democracy is practiced and the First Amendment comes alive.
There is a reason why a majority of Americans have a favorable opinion of Occupy Wall Street. You don’t have to be an occupier to share their frustration. Finally, a populist movement even a reformer can love.
Originally Published in Democracy Journal.
I was recently talking with some friends who work at the Chicago Board of Trade. Hearing the opinions voiced by Occupy Wall Street protesters, the traders agreed that they’d seen disturbing changes within their industry. While they might have written off criticisms 15 years ago, they’ve since watched the financial sector become more and more based on speculative gambling—with people trying to make profits by moving money around rather than by supporting real economic activity. To a surprising degree, my friends were willing to consent that the system has grown bankrupt. Yet, while they share some of the activists’ criticisms, they don’t like the street protests and are doubtful that the occupations will help our democracy.
I have been sympathetic to their concerns, but I ultimately disagree with their assessment of the protests’ importance. Occupy Wall Street is rooted in a deep tension in American life. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville illuminated how the conflict between equality and liberty is at the center of the American political drama. That we are now having an open and spirited debate about the optimal balance between these two values is a crucial, and welcome, development.
For decades, we have focused on extending liberty in the realm of the marketplace, but this has come at the expense of democratic equality. There was a time when our government approached economic policies with a dual bottom line: Policies were meant to create not only competitiveness, but also social well-being. In recent decades, however, our policy-makers have shifted to pursuing competitiveness as an end in itself, without regard for social benefit. As a result, we now witness a failure to create broadly shared prosperity—a failure that takes the form of glaring inequalities of wealth.
But there’s been a failure in our politics as well. Our system has too often failed to include the voices of working- and middle-class Americans as part of the discussion, privileging the political speech of the wealthy. As Harold Meyerson recently asked in The Washington Post:
After all, did the financial deregulation of the past two decades get enacted on its merits, or because of the campaign contributions and lobbying prowess of the financial sector? The 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had kept federally insured commercial banks separate from investment and speculator banks, didn’t happen because speculative banking had suddenly become safe. It happened because Citibank and other institutions made mega-campaign contributions and lobbied ferociously for repeal. The Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deregulated derivatives, was enacted because the leading banks believed they could make untold profits if it passed. And because they did indeed make untold profits—in the past decade, banks’ gains reached 41 percent of all the corporate profits in America—they had even more money with which to influence our lawmakers.
Americans are not only feeling a financial pinch; they’re feeling disenfranchised. We have experienced cuts to the welfare state for decades. But what we saw in Wisconsin and other state-level fights in early 2011 was that when Republican governors coupled further rollbacks in social services and decreases in education funding with attacks on some of the few remaining middle-class jobs in America, it created a level of insecurity that drove people—in numbers rarely seen—to voice their concerns outside of an electoral framework. These people used protests because the more traditional channels of democracy seemed blocked to all except those who could afford high-priced lobbyists. The same lack of democratic equality gave rise to Occupy Wall Street, and it will continue to motivate protests for as long as it persists.
Even within the business world, a variety of figures have recognized the imbalance. Henry Blodget, CEO and editor-in-chief of Business Insider,argues, “Importantly, the inequality that has developed in the economy over the past couple of decades is not just a moral issue. It’s a practical one. It is, as sociologists might say, “de-stabilizing.” It leads directly to the sort of social unrest that we’re seeing right now.” Meanwhile, Laurence D. Fink, Chief Executive of BlackRock, states of Occupy Wall Street, “These are not lazy people sitting around looking for something to do. We have people losing hope and they’re going into the street, whether it’s justified or not.” And for his part, Vikram Pandit, chief executive officer of Citigroup, says: “[These protests are] completely understandable. Trust has been broken between financial institutions and the citizens of the U.S., and that is Wall Street’s job, to reach out to Main Street and rebuild that trust.”
Historically, social movements have often been unpopular—and yet they’ve made important contributions to American politics. When viewed in hindsight, many protest movements once thought to be too unfocused, unkempt, or unruly ended up securing gains that are now taken for granted in our society.
While some observers may feel disappointed or confused by the message coming out of Occupy Wall Street, we should recognize that social change is a messy process. During the 1930s, those opposed to such measures as social security and labor rights frequently denounced those pushing for changes as dangerous Bolsheviks. Historian Kim Phillips-Fein notes that William Clinton Mullendore, president of the Southern California Edison Company and an influential conservative thinker, argued in 1931 against that era’s reformers, “[Those stirring up ‘trouble’ are] apostles of hatred.”
Yet in the end the social movement activism derided by establishment figures proved essential to creating the political climate necessary for change. Labor unionists and others speaking out made the reforms of the New Deal possible and paved the way for the growth of the American middle class in the post-World War II period. Few can argue today that this wasn’t a good thing for our country.
What’s at stake now is the health of our democracy. When a disproportionate number of Americans feel disenfranchised, it weakens the social fabric of our country. We see this in the ever-more-acrimonious clashes displayed on cable news. Will Occupy Wall Street, like New Deal-era activism, be viewed in retrospect as effectively pushing our political debate in a healthier direction? This remains to be seen. But it is clear that a renewed drive to again create shared prosperity in our economy and democratic equality in our politics is long overdue.
Originally published by Democracy: A Journal of Ideas
No force did more to build the American middle class than organized labor. In recent decades, however, unions have been decimated. Despite concerted efforts to turn the tide, the movement now represents only 7 percent of workers in the private sector. Never have working people in this country been more in need of a collective voice. Yet, we must ask, can labor alone create the change we need? If it can’t do it by itself, what role can unions play in supporting a wider progressive uprising?
Few individuals are offering more interesting, credible and challenging views on this question than veteran labor strategist Stephen Lerner. Ezra Klein recently wrote in The Washington Post: “Ask union types who the smartest labor organizer is and they’re likely to point you towards [SEIU] organizer Stephen Lerner, who planned the legendary Justice for Janitors campaign.” In the most recent issue of New Labor Forum, Lerner has an essay titled “A New Insurgency Can Only Arise Outside the Progressive and Labor Establishment.” It is a must-read for all those who wish to think seriously about creating change in this country.
On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I had a chance to sit down with Lerner on his back porch and have a conversation about his article. I walked away with the resolve that never before has it been so important for labor to have an inside-outside strategy. This means that unions can’t just work to get better politicians elected, but must also help foster a wider grassroots insurgency that can directly challenge the forces that have undermined the American middle class.
We are about to enter an election year, a time when we would normally put all our eggs in the basket of electoral campaigning. But Lerner makes a compelling case that it is necessary for the labor movement to maintain a dual focus. And that will mean changing the way we usually operate.
In his essay, Lerner argues that, amid efforts by the super-rich and major corporations to restructure the economy for their own benefit, unions have not been able to formulate a response by themselves. “Unfortunately,” he writes:
organized labor can be as much of an obstacle as it is a solution to mounting a movement for social justice that might reverse this trend and offer hope for the future.
Unions have the money, members, and capacity to organize, build, and fuel a movement designed to challenge the power of the corporate elite. But despite the fact that thousands of dedicated members, leaders, and staff have worked their hearts out to rebuild the labor movement, unions are just big enough – and just connected enough to the political and economic power structure – to be constrained from leading the kinds of activities that are needed.
Lerner cites examples in which unions have called off high-profile protests or acts of civil disobedience because they were worried that the actions would be perceived as too confrontational, or concerned that such protests would have negative legal, economic or political ramifications.
“If our goal is not to offend anyone,” Lerner told me, echoing a point he makes in his essay, “we might as well not do anything at all.”
I agree with one of his central points here: The more labor is seen as a narrow special interest group, representing the small pools of workers who have union contracts, the more its power will continue to decline. It will be left fighting defensive battles to hold on to the remaining vestiges of the New Deal, even as these are successively whittled away.
In order to change this, labor needs to address the issues that are of central concern to working people in this country, even if those issues fall outside the workplace. This means taking on the big banks, fighting foreclosures, pushing for public investment in our neighborhoods, reversing efforts to strip the state of revenue so that we can pay for essential social services.
I talked with Lerner about the groups that are doing this. A variety of national and regional networks – including National People’s Action, the Alliance for a Just Society and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment - are organizing in communities around just such issues. They are making savvy decisions about which specific lenders, employers and politicians they target. They are coordinating with other community groups across state lines to share best practices for campaign strategy and leadership development.
The labor movement has an urgent need to engage such allies and join in community-wide campaigns in cities across the country. Housing justice, predatory lending, transportation, immigrant rights, the elimination of public services: these are the issues that a huge number of Americans – including those who are union members – are confronting on a day-to-day basis. Efforts such as Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) Fight for a Fair Economy are starting to join with community allies on such fights, recognizing that labor needs an outspoken progressive movement bigger than itself if it is to succeed.
“One day protests won’t do it,” Lerner told me. “We need actions that escalate, that really grow and gain intensity over time.” In his New Labor Forum essay, Lerner argues that unions should financially support – but not exercise control over – “a new wave of direct action and mass activity.” He uses this year’s protests in Madison, which linked unions with community allies and embraced militant tactics such as building occupations, as an example. More recently, in The Washington Post, he discussed the Occupy Wall Street movement as part of the same model.
Talking with Lerner about how labor might fund, but not control, such protest movements, I expressed some skepticism. Practically speaking, I asked, isn’t it unrealistic to expect local union leaders to hand over resources to community mobilizations without being able to mandate any clear outcomes?
“It’s not a blank check,” Lerner said. “Unions should be engaged with the movement. They should be encouraging their members to join broader efforts and sharing information. But labor sometimes has too much at stake, economically and politically, to take the lead itself.”
As the election year approaches, I believe that Lerner’s argument has profound implications for how unions approach their political program. Now more than ever, labor needs to revive an inside-outside strategy by marrying its political muscle with engagement in community organizing.
In the past decade, unions have developed more sophisticated electoral field campaigns than ever before. This gives the labor movement sway among elected officials, particularly on the local and state levels. The problem is that, in most parts of the country, we are not holding politicians accountable to any concrete agenda. These lesser-evil politicians have no real stake in helping to expand our ability to build up an institutional counterbalance to the power of corporate America. To hold them accountable, we need a progressive movement that applies pressure from the outside.
“People in this country know that the economy is rigged and it’s not working for them,” Lerner said. “They are angry about it, and they are ready to mobilize in ways we haven’t seen in generations. I think unions can play a part in this process.”
What is important about the community mobilizations that Lerner discusses is that they are gaining steam at the same time that labor’s electoral machinery is gearing up. Instead of letting the election cycle distract us from the broader fights we need to be having, the mobilizations can allow unions to be working on both inside and outside tracks. Being engaged with community allies who are undertaking escalating public actions makes labor part of a wider progressive insurgency that is articulating an agenda for how to make the economy fair again, and that is putting that vision out in the street.
“I understand why unions sometimes can’t risk their relationships with certain employers or politicians,” Lerner said. “But that can’t stop efforts to create accountability for corporations and for politicians. Unions need to take a leap of faith and support the uprisings that are working to rebalance power in our country.”
A PDF of Lerner’s article can be found on the New Labor Forum web site here.
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