Stephen Lerner

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Stephen Lerner appearing on Ed Shultz Show

Stephen K. Lerner is regarded as one of the "labor movement’s" brightest stars, Lerner led SEIU’s Justice for Janitors and Wall Street/Bank Campaigns.[1] He is the husband of Marilyn Sneiderman, Executive Director of AVODAH, a leftist Jewish "social change" organization.[2]

Husband of Marilyn Sneiderman and father of Zack Lerner


In 2007 Stephen Lerner, was director of SEIU's property services division.[3]

April/ May 1996 Article in Boston Review titled: Reviving Unions

Highlighted quotes from this article relating to his activities in 2011 [4]

More than our own interests are at stake. A just, democratic society depends on a powerful workers' movement. For workers, economic and political strength comes from collective organization, not individual wealth. Without such organization, we are bound to lose in the labor market and the political arena. And when we lose, democracy is replaced with corporate oligarchy. Over the past generation, these elementary truths have disappeared from political debate, even among progressives. Recovering them is a first step in restoring life to the American labor movement, in rebuilding unions and transforming them into the leaders of a new movement for economic and social justice.
Tom Donahue, who was expected to succeed Lane Kirkland as president, called for "building bridges, not blocking them" as a response to labor's difficulties. His challenger, SEIU President John Sweeney, replied: "I believe in building bridges whenever the shelling lets up long enough for us to put up steel and pour concrete -- we need to be a full partner with our employers and a full citizen of the communities we live in. But I believe in blocking bridges whenever those employers and those communities turn a deaf ear to the working families we represent."
Each of these four strategies -- cooperativist, non-collective bargaining, "hot shop" organizing, and political lobbying -- has serious deficiencies. We have tried cooperation and been rewarded with wage decline and job insecurity.
If we are to increase the power of workers, then, we need a renewed focus on building unions, not alternative forms of workers' representation. Furthermore, we need an industry-wide and regional strategy of organizing, rather than one focused on organizing firms one by one. And, as Sweeney's victory suggests, we need to back up this program with a militant posture, which means engaging in mass civil disobedience and direct action. With all that unions are up against, only these radically different approaches can help us start winning again.
The law doesn't work -- not for us. It does not support or protect workers' right to organize, bargain, or fight to improve conditions. Many of the tactics and strategies that allow us to hurt employers are illegal: secondary boycotts, mass picketing, common situs picketing. Effective action undertaken by striking workers is almost always enjoined by the courts within 24 hours.
Not only are workers' rights unprotected, but actions that increase workers' power are unlawful. As legislators and courts have aggressively protected the rights of employers and failed to protect those of workers, effective collective action has been placed outside the law.
The law doesn't force employers to bargain seriously or to sign agreements. They can bargain to impasse, lock workers out, hire scabs -- it's all legal. For unions, by contrast, obeying the law reduces us to walking, in small circles, in front of facilities running on scab labor.
New Directions
Our first step must be a fundamental change of orientation. We have to stop thinking that unions are one half of a "labor-management partnership," or part of a "system of industrial relations." There is no partnership, and the only industrial relation is hostility. We are now a movement in opposition. Hindered and hurt by our country's laws, we face a life and death struggle with the very corporations, politicians, and government with whom we've spent a lifetime building relationships.
We didn't choose opposition; we have been forced into it. And now we have no alternative but to focus our time, energy, and resources on a radically different approach to rebuilding labor's power. That approach must draw on our principal strength, which is not the good will of employers enthusiastic about cooperative labor relations, but the millions of union workers who believe in their hearts that strong unions are essential to a better future. We need to mobilize these forces.
Improve our bargaining position by taking wages out of competition. We cannot ensure decent wages if we pursue single facility organizing and bargaining -- current competitive conditions rule that out. By taking on whole corporations, industries, and regions we can regain contracts that force employers to compete with each other by improving the quality of products, not by driving wages down.
Through the power of our actions and force of our principles, create conditions that require politicians and courts to protect and expand workers' rights -- not because they love us but because they see such protection and expansion as the only rational remedy to escalating conflict between labor and management.
Move beyond wages and working conditions to lead a broad-based movement for economic and social justice, and against a spiritual and moral poverty that tolerates racism and sexism and scapegoats society's most vulnerable members.
More recently, the health care workers of 1199, the United Farm Workers, and public employee unions won critical victories only because they were willing to break the law. The biggest organizing gains in the private sector in the last 30 years have come in occupations that were not covered by the National Labor Relations Act -- hospital workers and farm workers. And illegal strikes that resulted in the jailing of union leaders stimulated the huge growth in public employee organizing. Likewise, to overcome current obstacles, mobilizing our members through mass civil disobedience is the strategy with the best chance of success.
As we seek to revive the labor movement, we should take history to heart. Instead of courting public opinion by playing up our ability to increase productivity, we need to earn workers' and public support by fighting corporate attempts to impoverish workers and their communities
The need for non-violent direct action flows from the same source as civil disobedience: an inability to win within a framework of unfair laws. But the tactics are different. In direct action the goal is to maximize the level of disruption without necessarily engaging in symbolic arrests. For instance, it might mean creating roving blockades of roads, with people leaving the scene in time to avoid being arrested.
Instead of confining disagreements to the smallest arena, the idea is to escalate the scale of the conflict, until we create the level of crisis necessary to settle disputes. We move beyond striking one employer and spread the "strike" to whole companies, industries, cities. We engage our enemies' allies in the political/corporate community
People know us by our deeds: Willingness to go to jail for a cause elevates that cause, and those who act in its name. When leaders, members, and allies take real personal risks for the union, people will see us differently. We will have redefined ourselves, not as victims of an onslaught, but as agents of a more just society. To the extent that unions have employed these tactics, they have largely worked.
Imagine how different our organizing and bargaining campaigns would be if we started using our capacity to physically interfere with the ability of companies to operate, produce, and deliver goods and services
Punish companies that fire workers during organizing campaigns by sitting in, shutting down, and disrupting corporate offices and other company facilities on a regular basis. We can make companies pay a direct price for attacking workers' rights and as a result limit their ability to fight the union.
Shut down the nation's highways, with striking truck drivers and their supporters blocking major highways in addition to picketing their terminals. This type of action would bring large segments of the economy to a standstill. It would make a truckers' strike a problem for huge numbers of corporations, creating a crisis and a corporate need for a settlement.
Tie up rush hour traffic, delaying the start of work for thousands of powerful law firms and corporations who ignore the plight of "invisible" office building janitors who clean up after them. By making the poverty of janitors visible and a problem for the whole city, we create powerful incentives to improve the conditions for janitors.
Increase the power of "out-sourced" manufacturing workers by sitting in front of and delaying trucks that have to deliver parts to an assembly plant "just in time." Both the company and workers will see the power of the union differently if the consequence of firing workers who are trying to organize is the temporary shutdown of the assembly line of a major manufacturing plant.
Unions force companies to do things they don't want to do. We use the threat of greater economic damage to get them to agree to changes in wages and benefits. We need to apply the same kind of economic pressure to neutralize them and their allies in the political arena.
The AFL-CIO leadership has committed itself to plan, direct, and help finance multi-union industry organizing campaigns. It is aiming to refocus the work of state and central bodies toward mobilizing members and affiliates to actively participate in and support offensive organizing and bargaining fights. And the new leadership is developing a broad program that involves members in attacking anti-worker legislation.

Dispute between Wackenhut and SEIU

SEIU and the National Labor Relations Board Issues Complaint Charging Wackenhut With Multiple Federal Labor Law Violations The original charges were filed by SEIU employee Stephen Lerner (Service Employees International Union) in May 2004. The charges ended in a settlement with SEIU and Wackenhut on Dec 16, 2008. [5]

SEIU Building Services Division Director, Stephen Lerner said, "This exposes the truth about Wackenhut's treatment of its workers and its hostile attitude toward workers who try to form unions." [6]

On July 12, 2006 Wackenhut filed an unfair labor practice suit with NLRB over tactics used by paid operatives of the SEIU. In turn, the board insisted that the union “inform its membership to halt disruptive activities, to not engage in unlawful demonstrations and to not threaten, coerce or restrain clients of Wackenhut,”

In a related matter Wackenhut sued SEIU on April 11, 2008. From the Wackenhut website:

Wackenhut Corporation today filed a civil action against the Service Employees International Union Local 1 responding to the union's entry into and maintenance of an illegal agreement with the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago (BOMA/Chicago). [7] (see Justice for Janitors)
The lawsuit, which is based on the agreement in effect from April 26, 2004 through April 29, 2007, seeks damages in excess of $5 million.

Labor strategy

In July 2008, Michael D. Yates, David Bacon, Warren Mar, Stephen Lerner and John Borsos co-authored an article published in the Monthly Review entitled "SEIU: Debating Labor's Strategy." The following are some excerpts from the article:[8]

"Many of us have spent most of our adult lives in a world where the labor and progressive movements have been in decline, on the defensive, and losing far more then winning. After failed organizing campaigns, lost strikes or yet another attack on civil and human rights we've all repeated some form of the mantra, "What we really need is a movement." This is then followed by a nostalgic discussion of the 1930s and 1960s and then a repetition of the adage: "That's right, what we really need is a movement." We never got around to a discussion of what we would do if conditions changed, if some combination of anger, hope, and passion were unleashed and it was possible to imagine actually being part of a movement, not in the past but now. We didn't discuss this because until recently it didn't seem possible."
"The meltdown of the economy, the resulting disenchantment with failed free market corporatist ideology, growing inequality, global warming/environmental degradation, and the war in Iraq are creating conditions that are ripe for organizing and just maybe, if we don't squander the moment, movement building. I may be too optimistic, and too hopeful, but it feels like we are on the edge of a moment of historic change."
"SEIU is advocating -- and at its recent convention the membership approved -- the "Justice for All" program, which calls for the focus and resources of the union to be dedicated to building a movement of all workers (i.e., class interests). Justice for All explicitly rejects the business union model, which focuses the union on servicing and defending remaining islands of unionization (i.e., local union interests)."
"Justice for All is both an ideological and practical programmatic commitment to build a movement of all workers to win broad goals to change and transform the country: healthcare for all, immigration reform, quality public services for our communities, and the organization of millions of workers in the South and other non-union regions of the country. Combined with a commitment to work to build a global labor movement and a focus on getting out of Iraq, the program adopted by SEIU delegates is one of the most progressive and ambitious of a major union in recent history. The most radical development from the SEIU convention is that delegates overwhelmingly voted to commit SEIU to changing the world, not just their work sites."
"SEIU's two million members and local unions in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico are actively engaged in massive campaigns to organize millions of healthcare workers, property service workers, and privatized public workers. SEIU is challenging the power of giant private equity companies that are reshaping the economy. SEIU locals are running bargaining campaigns for hundreds of thousands of workers, and we are trying to elect a president and congress that supports a workers' agenda. This work is done in collaboration with progressive activists whose focus is to win real change in our communities, our country, and the world."

Advisor to the Wilson International Studies Program

Wilson International Studies Program is designed for students who wish to tear down institutional and language barriers and rebuild cooperative and multicultural systems in a global society. Students will develop an understanding of the roles of political power, economic development, language, culture, and religion in the shaping of a multicultural world. [9]

Fired from SEIU?

In November 2010, new SEIU president Mary Kay Henry fired long-time SEIU staffer Stephen Lerner. According to the Labor Union Report;[10]

The high-level firing appears to confirm that the 1199 Ohio group including Tom Woodruff and Scott Courtney is consolidating power at SEIU, and Tasty is told that the issue came to a head over a dispute about the national unions organizing budget: Would SEIU spend millions of dollars on a multi-city campaign to organize low-paid workers and attack the banks as Lerner wanted, or would the money be spent on more traditional organizing targets and on propping up the UHW trusteeship in California, where SEIU has already sunk tens of millions of dollars? Other sources tell Tasty that several key SEIU staffers feared Lerners campaign would be more of the same smoke-and-mirror, media-driven gambits that have soaked up tens of millions of dollars without resulting in new members OR additional credibility for SEIU in the area of financial reform.

However on March 25, 2011, Wade Rathke denied that Lerner had been fired,[11]

"Lerner has not been “fired” by SEIU as they report. He was placed on paid leave last fall to think through his contribution to the union, but was certainly present at the recent international executive board meeting. He’s in a curious position no doubt, but it’s something like being an “injured reserve” in the NFL and waiting for the team to find a place to bring him back on the roster."

On building the "progressive" movement

According to a March 2011 Talking Union article "The Wisconsin Uprising Is a Bottom-Up Movement — Should We Hope DC Leaders Don’t Get in the Way?" by Mike Elk, "one person who worries about the role of DC-based organizations hampering the spreading of mass direction action is Stephen Lerner."

“Labor, civil rights, and other groups that are involved in building a progressive majority and infrastructure are important to the movement but can’t lead or control such a campaign. They are essential to funding, to creating capacity, credibility and scale,” says Lerner.

“But the reality is that there is just enough political access, financial assets and institutional interests to hinder and ultimately strangle a campaign, whose strategy must be built around tactics designed to create the level of disruption and uncertainty needed to force fundamental changes in how the economy is organized,” says Lerner. “That’s why the campaign needs to be independent, and not controlled by institutions with too much to lose.”[12]

Left Forum 2011

In March , Stephen Lerner addressed two panels at Left Forum 2011, Pace University New York.[13]

Beyond Solidarity: The Need and Promise of International Unionism:

Building Solidarity through Community Power: Community-Labor Coalitions:

"Trying to Disrupt and Create Uncertainty"

Listen to full audio here

On March 19, 2011, during the Building Solidarity through Community Power: Community-Labor Coalitions panel at the Left Forum, Lerner spent approximately twelve minutes detailing his plan for a coalition of labor unions and activists to destroy U.S. capitalism and redistribute wealth by applying the Cloward-Piven Strategy. Audio of his strategy is to the right. The Cloward-Piven Strategy was delivered at the 1966 Socialist Scholars Conference by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven. The strategy was designed to so over-burden the state with obligations to welfare recipients that revolutionary crisis and change would become inevitable.

Below is a transcript of Lerner's comments:

It feels to me after a long time of being on defense that something is starting to turn in the world and we just have to decide if we are on defense or offense
Maybe there is a different way to look at some of theses questions it’s hard for me to think about any part of organizing without thinking what just happened with this economic crisis and what it means
I don't know how to have a discussion about labor and community if we don't first say what do we need to do at this time in history what is the strategy that gives us some chance of winning because I spent my life time as a union organizer justice for janitors a lot of things
It seems we are at a moment where the world is going to get much much worse or much much better
Unions are almost dead we cannot survive doing what we do but the simple fact of the matter is community organizations are almost dead also and if you think about what we need to do it may give us some direction which is essentially what the folks that are in charge - the big banks and everything - what they want is stability
Every time there is a crisis in the world they say, well, the markets are stable.
What's changed in America is the economy doing well has nothing to do with the rest of us
They figured out that they don't need us to be rich they can do very well in a global market without us so what does this have to do with community and labor organizing more.
We need to figure out in a much more through direct action more concrete way how we are really trying to disrupt and create uncertainty for capital for how corporations operate
The thing about a boom and bust economy is it is actually incredibly fragile.
There are actually extraordinary things we could do right now to start to destabilize the folks that are in power and start to rebuild a movement.
For example, 10% of homeowners are underwater right their home they are paying more for it then its worth 10% of those people are in strategic default, meaning they are refusing to pay but they are staying in their home that's totally spontaneous they figured out it takes a year to kick me out of my home because foreclosure is backed up
If you could double that number you would you could put banks at the edge of insolvency again.
Students have a trillion dollar debt
We have an entire economy that is built on debt and banks so the question would be what would happen if we organized homeowners in mass to do a mortgage strike if we get half a million people to agree it would literally cause a new finical crisis for the banks not for us we would be doing quite well we wouldn't be paying anything.
Government is being strangled by debt
The four things we could do that could really upset wall street
One is if city and state and other government entities demanded to renegotiate their debt and you might say why would the banks ever do it - because city and counties could say we won’t do business with you in the future if you won’t renegotiate the debt now
So we could leverage the power we have of government and say two things we won’t do business with you JP Morgan Chase anymore unless you do two things: you reduce the price of our interest and second you rewrite the mortgages for everybody in the communities
We could make them do that
The second thing is there is a whole question in Europe about students’ rates in debt structure. What would happen if students said we are not going to pay. It’s a trillion dollars. Think about republicans screaming about debt a trillion dollars in student debt
There is a third thing we can think about what if public employee unions instead of just being on the defensive put on the collective bargaining table when they negotiate they say we demand as a condition of negotiation that the government renegotiate - it’s crazy that you’re paying too much interest to your buddies the bankers it’s a strike issue - we will strike unless you force the banks to renegotiate
Then if you add on top of that if we really thought about moving the kind of disruption in Madison but moving that to Wall Street and moving that to other cities around the country
We basically said you stole seventeen trillion dollars - you've improvised us and we are going to make it impossible for you to operate
Labor can’t lead this right now so if labor can’t lead but we are a critical part of it we do have money we have millions of members who are furious
But I don't think this kind of movement can happen unless community groups and other activists take the lead.
If we really believe that we are in a transformative stage of what's happening in capitalism
Then we need to confront this in a serious way and develop really ability to put a boot in the wheel then we have to think not about labor and community alliances we have to think about how together we are building something that really has the capacity to disrupt how the system operates
We need to think about a whole new way of thinking about this not as a partnership but building something new.
We have to think much more creatively. The key thing... What does the other side fear the most - they fear disruption. They fear uncertainty. Every article about Europe says in they rioted in Greece the markets went down
The folks that control this country care about one thing how the stock market goes what the bond market does how the bonuses goes. We have a very simple strategy:
  • How do we bring down the stock market
  • How do we bring down their bonuses
  • How do we interfere with their ability to be rich
And that means we have to politically isolate them, economically isolate them and disrupt them
It’s not all theory i’ll do a pitch.
So a bunch of us around the country think who would be a really good company to hate we decided that would be JP Morgan Chase and so we are going to roll out over the next couple of months what would hopefully be an exciting campaign about JP Morgan Chase that is really about challenge the power of Wall Street.
And so what we are looking at is the first week in May can we get enough people together starting now to really have an week of action in New York I don't want to give any details because I don't know if there are any police agents in the room.
The goal would be that we will roll out of New York the first week of May. We will connect three ideas
  • that we are not broke there is plenty of money
  • they have the money - we need to get it back
  • and that they are using Bloomberg and other people in government as the vehicle to try and destroy us
And so we need to take on those folks at the same time
and that we will start here we are going to look at a week of civil disobedience - direct action all over the city then roll into the JP Morgan shareholder meeting which they moved out of New York because I guess they were afraid because of Columbus.
There is going to be a ten state mobilization it try and shut down that meeting and then looking at bank shareholder meetings around the country and try and create some moments like Madison except where we are on offense instead of defense
Where we have brave and heroic battles challenging the power of the giant corporations. We hope to inspire a much bigger movement about redistributing wealth and power in the country and that labor can’t do itself that community groups can’t do themselves but maybe we can work something new and different that can be brave enough and daring and nimble enough to do that kind of thing.

Visiting the White House

Screenshot of the White House Visitor Logs

Lerner has visited the White House four times since early 2009. Two of these visits were for public gatherings: a large group's private White House tour and a White House Hanukkah celebration.[14]

However at least two other visits were scheduled for private meetings with high-level executive offices. On May 22, 2010, Lerner met with a presidential personnel officer who manages economic agencies. Lerner also had an October 16, 2010 appointment scheduled by Tara Corrigan, executive assistant to then-White House political director Patrick Gaspard. Like Lerner, Gaspard spent much of his career working as a lobbyist and executive vice president for SEIU‘s Local 1199 in New York.[2]

Foreclosure deal

In 2010, as the foreclosure epidemic raged, George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, and Stephen Lerner, Service Employees International Union organizer, brought unions, community organizations and faith groups together to pressure banks and the Obama administration to do more for families losing their homes. As the New Bottom Line coalition, they mounted protests at bank headquarters around the country, generating media attention and helping Attorneys General Eric Schneiderman of New York and Kamala Harris of California successfully push for a stronger national settlement with several major banks, which resulted in more than $26 million in foreclosure relief.[15]

Take Back the American Dream Conference 2011

Stephen Lerner was one of the 158 speakers who addressed the Take Back the American Dream Conference 2011 . The Conference was hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies, and Democratic Socialists of America dominated Campaign for America's Future, [16]

Ear to the Ground Project

Ear to the Ground Project;

We would like to express our deep respect and appreciation for everyone who took the time to talk with us, and the organizations that generously hosted us during our travels. Interviews were confidential, but the following people have agreed to have their names listed for this publication:

Most of those listed were connected to Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

Stephen Lerner was among those on the list. [17]

National Student Power Convergence 2012


Speakers at the National Student Power Convergence 2012 included Naomi Klein, Rebel Diaz, Stephen Lerner, Joshua Kahn Russell, Nelini Stamp, Ben Manski, Angus Johnston, Nayantara Sen, Samantha Corbin, Carl Davidson.


  1. Talking Union The Wisconsin Uprising Is a Bottom-Up Movement — Should We Hope DC Leaders Don’t Get in the Way? Posted on March 7, 2011 by dsalaborblogmoderator, by Mike Elk
  2. 2.0 2.1 The Blaze: Uncovered: Did the Leftist Encouraging Economic Terrorism Have Access to Obama’s White House?, March 23, 2011 (accessed on March 28, 2011)
  3. Global Labor Organizing in Theory and Practice, Democratic Left, Fall 2007 by Garver, Paul
  4. April/ May 1996 Article in Boston Review titled: Reviving Unions(accessed April 11, 2011)
  5. National Labor Relations Board Issues Complaint Charging Wackenhut With Multiple Federal Labor Law Violations (accessed on April 11, 2011)
  6. SEIU reaches settlement with Wackenhut from SEIU website (accessed on April 11, 2011)
  7. Wackenhut Files Suit Against SEIU for Rigging Security Services Contracts , July 14, 2008 (accessed on April 11, 2011)
  8. Monthly Review Magazine: SEIU: Debating Labor's Strategy, July 14, 2008 (accessed on March 31, 2011)
  9. Woodrow Wilson School International Studies Program(accessed April 11, 2011)
  10. LUR SEIU Cleans House: Top Staffer Gets Thrown Overboard, More to Come?, November 14, 2010
  11. Wade Rathke: Chief Organizer Blog: Stephen Lerner, the Banks, and the Right-wing Scare Machine, March 25, 2011 (accessed on April 1, 2011)
  12. Talking Union The Wisconsin Uprising Is a Bottom-Up Movement — Should We Hope DC Leaders Don’t Get in the Way? Posted on March 7, 2011 by dsalaborblogmoderator, by Mike Elk
  13. Left Forum: Panels (accessed on March 8, 2011)
  14. White House: Visitor Access Records (accessed on March 28, 2011)
  15. MOYERS & COMPANY Activists to Watch: George Goehl October 24, 2013 by Peter Dreier
  16. Our Future website: Take Back the American Dream 2011 Speakers (accessed on Sept. 22, 2011)
  17. Ear to the Ground, About, accessed Nov. 12, 2015