Five Questions With … Stephen Lerner

Director, Service Employees International Union’s Private Equity Project

1. The SEIU commissioned a pollster to survey 800 registered voters likely to vote in 2008 about their attitude toward private equity. What did you hope to achieve?

We know that, once you get away from Wall Street, very few people have been exposed to or understand private equity. And this was our attempt to understand what people actually know and what people’s attitude is toward what they understand about private equity.

2. What do you consider to be the most important finding in the poll results?

That people did not buy in any shape or form that private equity companies are in business to help the widows and orphans and firemen in pension funds.

3. Forty-two percent of those polled had never heard of private equity. Meanwhile, the SEIU is waging a campaign to educate the public about the economic impact of buyouts. Are you considering TV or radio spots to raise the profile?

We have some very interesting paid and earned media that we’ll be unveiling in the near future. Stay tuned.

4. The poll found 79 percent of respondents favor taxing PE firm profits at the same rate as other corporate income, and 78 percent support taxing carried-interest profits the same as regular income. Do you think this will have any impact on Capitol Hill?

The private equity industry has spent an enormous amount of money hiring lobbyists and setting up front groups and doing everything they can to pretend their mission in life is to help the poor and disadvantaged. I think in the long run they’ll be totally ineffective in convincing people of that, as people understand more and more the impact of these private equity deals. And we’ll see, as time passes, how that influences people on the Hill.

5. How would the SEIU have responded if the poll showed that voters love private equity as much as they love apple pie and Oprah?

The only thing that would have surprised me more than that being the response of voters would be the private equity industry waking up and saying, “We do really have a responsibility for the millions of workers who don’t have pension plans and don’t have health insurance who work in companies we own.”