Horizontal Meets Vertical: 3 Ways

Occupy, Community Groups and Unions

Can Work Together to Change Society

To build this movement, Occupy needs to connect with tens of millions of people who are watching the unfolding battle but are not yet involved.

The following article first appeared on the Web site of The Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its e-mail newsletters here. 

Occupy has cracked open the door that lets us imagine that another world is possible. Thousands of arrests, months of protest and acts of incredible personal risk and sacrifice have put inequality and Wall Street’s out-of-control political and economic power on center stage. As activity ratchets up this spring, the challenge is to get more people pushing that door open ever wider.

To build this movement, Occupy needs to connect with tens of millions of people who are watching the unfolding battle but are not yet involved. To sustain it, we must link this spring’s protests to victories where people live, learn and work. Focusing on three issues—housing, student debt and the devaluing of work—allows us to thread different strands of activity through a common analysis of how Wall Street, big banks and corporations have profited by tanking and then reorganizing the economy.

Saving the neighborhoods where we live: The houses of 11 million homeowners and their families are threatened by foreclosure or are underwater by $700 billion, drowning people in negative equity. The housing crisis is central to how 60 percent of wealth has been stripped from communities of color since the 2008 economic collapse. Writing down principal to fair market value would inject tens of billions of dollars into the economy, reduce average mortgages by hundreds of dollars a month and help create a million jobs.

Freeing ourselves from student debt: Students and their families now have nearly a trillion dollars of debt, with average debt totaling over $25,000. The explosion in student debt is a direct outgrowth of the defunding of education in state after state. Unlike corporate and other debt, student debt is excluded from bankruptcy relief, strangling students for life. Reducing student debt load and the interest rates applied to it would save hundreds of billions of dollars in debt payments. It’s a first step to creating equal access to education and giving students a fair start without a lifetime burden.

Taking control of where we work and what we earn: Tens of millions of workers have lost trillions in income as corporations have cut wages and benefits, outsourced, downsized and devalued work. Reinventing collective bargaining for the 93 percent of the more than 100 million private sector workers who don’t have a union is the first step in revaluing work, winning fair compensation and eliminating corporate abuses in workplaces.

What combination of forces has the potential to drive Wall Street and big banks to negotiate with homeowners, students and workers? Can we find the places, moments and issues where the horizontal world of Occupy meets the vertical, more established world of community-based groups and unions?

We get a taste of what this might look like in the work that is already happening in Occupy Our Homes, which works with community groups across the country to nonviolently resist foreclosures. Many of the same groups are also working to win $300 billion from the banks by reducing mortgage principals to fair market value. In the weeks ahead there will be a growing call to divest taxpayer money from big banks, a dramatic increase in home occupations, the beginnings of a real investigation of bank wrongdoing—the combination of which could force real negotiations between homeowners and the banks.

There is growing interest in Occupy and student groups in a student debt strike. The banks can’t foreclose on a brain or a degree. If a critical mass of student debtors—a million or more—pledged to refuse to pay, it would create a collection crisis that could force negotiations about reducing student debt.

Starting with GE on April 25 in Detroit and moving on to Wells Fargo, Bank of America and dozens of other corporations in May and June, tens of thousands of people from Occupy, community organizations, unions and environmental groups will show up at the annual shareholder meetings of major corporations. Some people will be on the inside with proxies, and others will be massed in the streets, all delivering the message that it is no longer acceptable for giant, unaccountable corporations to decide the political and economic fate of the country.

Emerging movements are complicated, exciting, messy, confusing and wonderful things to be a part of. When the passion, fearlessness and vision of Occupy intersects with the resources and membership of community groups and unions, we’ll find the sweet spot that makes it possible to force the richest to negotiate with the rest of us. It is where these two worlds meet—horizontal and vertical—united around common issues and enemies, that we create the potential to start winning together.

Stephen Lerner serves on the Service Employees International Union’s International Executive Board and is the architect of the Justice for Janitors campaign.


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