This story is part of Sarah Jaffe’s ongoing series, Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers.
In this interview, which has been edited, Jaffe speaks with Stephen Lerner, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. (The full interview is available online and in the audio above.) Lerner works with Hedge Clippers, a new campaign that aims to expose how hedge funds and billionaires influence politics, as well as the Bank Workers campaign and other initiatives focused on exposing the ways in which wealthy investors and corporations “influence government and politics in order to expand their wealth, influence and power.”
Sarah Jaffe: Let’s start with the Bank Workers because you just kicked off a union drive.
Stephen Lerner: The Bank Workers campaign is really interesting, because what most people don’t realize is banks in most countries are significantly unionized.
We have a three-pronged campaign. One has been broadly building worker committees in banks in the United States. 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 whistleblowers on the Wells Fargo scandal, where they were opening fake accounts.
There is an ongoing, growing campaign with workers in all the major US banks, but what we are focusing on now is a bank called Santander, which a Spanish-owned bank. In the United States they are primarily in the Northeast.
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 in other countries. What was really exciting in the kickoff, and sort of unheard of, is an addition to the traditional solidarity actions, letters and pickets, workers in their offices in Argentina and Brazil 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.
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. That is why the work with Wells Fargo has been so exciting, because literally thousands of workers have signed petitions saying these outrageous sales goals could only be met if they cheated customers.
SJ: 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 Donald Trump’s nationalism, international campaigns like this are a really interesting starting point.
SL: What is unique about the bank workers organizing is the Brazilian Bank Workers, one of the biggest bank workers unions 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 nonunion.
It is almost hallucinogenic to have workers in so-called developing countries say that their wages and benefits are threatened by the level of nonunion 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, for workers to not be pressured to cheat people as a condition of employment.
We are 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 the Puerto Rican debt crisis to their role in subprime auto [loans]. They just failed their Community Reinvestment Act test and we did a report on that. 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.
Essentially, the Community Reinvestment Act requires banks to provide resources to the communities that they are in, to invest in them. We did a report showing 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 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.
SJ: 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 bipartisan, we should say. In the age of Donald Trump, in particular, talk about the importance of this kind of work and why it is important to know who is funding your politicians.
SL: The Hedge Clippers 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 and exposés, plus 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 it’s Democrats or Republicans, 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 Steven Mnuchin and the Goldman Sachs folks, that are [working] 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 have significant investments from public employee pension plans and college endowments. We have an ongoing 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 poor returns.
We are going to escalate that, and 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. An example is Robert Mercer whose family owns part of Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica.
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 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. It is an $18 billion-a-year tax loophole.
One of the ways we can hurt them is by cutting off tax breaks and cutting off investment. I think there is a sweet irony of their greed, that in getting into bed with Trump, it may make them much more susceptible to cutting off their capital.
Another thing that was really illustrated on the CWA Momentive strike, which was a long strike in upstate New York, was that 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 that 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 job destroyers.
We want to completely change the story by putting the spotlight on them by saying, “These are 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.
SJ: 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.
SL: Wells Fargo workers exposed how they were cheating consumers, but there is now a campaign called Forego Wells. 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 ways, 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 [the US Department of] Transportation, was on the board of Wells Fargo during all of the scandals.
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 and those 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 sets of players… Let’s look at all of the ways 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 of these things. On the other hand, anybody who associates with Trump has to be guilty of all of his sins.
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, went over to the administration and stood behind Trump when he signed the Muslim ban. We need to hold Goldman Sachs accountable. 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.
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.