(Photo: Press Association via AP Images)
This year, I’ve been focused on how anti-poverty activists can move from a defensive battle defined by trying to save what needs to be saved during these budget debates, to an offensive one, laying out a vision that inspires ongoing, unified action and builds a vibrant movement that connects with people in their communities.
I offered one modest proposal for an “anti-poverty contract”—five issues that impact both low-income and middle class people—around which activists and groups could organize. The Western Center on Law & Poverty and a handful of other national and local groups are trying to build an effort around that idea.
However, when you consider the scale of the problems we face—and what inspires people to take action—clearly much, much more is needed. As I wrote previously, to build a new anti-poverty movement will require the kind of organizing and actions that are as creative, visible and gripping as the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Enter Stephen Lerner.
Lerner is a labor and community organizer who has spent more than three decades organizing hundreds of thousands of janitors, farm workers, garment workers and other low-wage workers into unions. These efforts resulted in increased wages, first-time health benefits, paid sick days and other improvements on the job. The architect of the historic Justice for Janitors campaign, he is currently working with unions and community groups across the country to break Wall Street’s anti-democratic grip on our politics and our economy.
Lerner lays out a powerful case about the intersection between poverty and Wall Street accountability—and how a Wall Street accountability movement can transform an economy that offers so few pathways out of poverty, and so many ways to keep people impoverished.
Here is our conversation:
Greg Kaufmann: Why is the Wall Street accountability movement now the focus of your work, and what is the potential you see there?
Stephen Lerner: One of the challenges is that there are so many things wrong right now—that you can be involved in any of a thousand causes. The problem is if they are disconnected it doesn’t add up to anything. So, people who are opposed to poverty have a dozen different things they’d like to move on the Hill, none of which are likely to pass at this time.
So the focus on Wall Street is: How do you connect all of these different battles? And, in fact, are there core things in common that drive them together?