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Stephen Lerner (born January 29, 1958) 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, resulting in increased wages, first-time health benefits, paid sick days, and other improvements.
Lerner is a critic of Wall Street bankers and the increased financialization of the US economy. He argues that the power of investments banks and other financial entities have led to income inequality and served as the driving force behind the creation of overwhelming debt obligations seen at the state and local level.
The result, Lerner says, is a consolidation of economic and political power in the hands of a small number of banking and finance executives. Lerner advocates the use of non-violent civil disobedience as a tactic to challenge the influence of Wall Street and corporations.
Lerner is a contributor on national television and radio programs and has published articles charting a path for a 21st-century labor movement focused on growth and meeting the challenges of a global economy.
Stephen Lerner is the son of a secretary and a psychiatrist and the grandson of Jewish immigrants who fled anti-Semitism and the pogroms of Russian and Poland in the early 20th century. Lerner’s grandfather began his career in America as a waiter in New York and later became a restaurant owner in Miami.
Lerner’s father was able to afford college through his service in the ROTC program and Lerner spent part of his childhood living on a military base in Germany while his father served his country in uniform.
After high school, Lerner became an organizer with the United Farm Workers of America and worked on the grape and lettuce boycotts in New York.
Following his time with the Farm Workers, Lerner worked in the housekeeping departments of Long Island Jewish Medical Center and other healthcare facilities and became an organizer for the healthcare union 1199 in Rhode Island.
Lerner was fired for organizing a union while working as an extrusion machine operator for the jewelry industry. His wife was pregnant with his first child at the time. Following that, Lerner moved to North Carolina to become an organizer for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and he organized workers throughout the south.
Lerner organized high-tech manufacturing workers and public employees in Ohio with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) before joining the staff of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 1986.
At SEIU, Lerner is credited with creating the Justice for Janitors campaign, a movement by janitors across the country to organize for better wages and working conditions, access to affordable healthcare, and full-time hours and sick time. Justice for Janitors improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of janitors and their families across the country.
Lerner also directed the union’s private equity project, a multi-year campaign to expose the business practices of private equity firms in the lead up to the 2008 economic collapse.
Following the 2008 financial crisis, Lerner became director of the union’s banking and finance project, organizing SEIU members and other community groups across the country into action to challenge the business practices of Wall Street and the big banks. Through this campaign SEIU also partnered with unions and groups in Europe, South America, and elsewhere to build a campaign to hold financial institutions accountable.
He currently serves on the International Executive Board of the 2.2 million member Service Employees International Union.
Lerner has three sons and lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Marilyn.