Crashing the bankers’ party

October 28, 2009

Lee Sustar and Rigo Gogol look at the protests in Chicago against the banks that are making big profits thanks to trillions in taxpayer money while workers suffer the effects of the crisis.

IN AN angry and spirited demonstration, more than 2,000 people from labor, community and faith organizations protested outside the annual meeting of the American Bankers Association October 27 to vent their fury at the banks' inflated profits and bloated bonuses while workers lose their jobs and homes in record numbers.

Denise Dixon, executive director of the Illinois group Action Now, captured the mood when she recounted the devastation of home foreclosures in Chicago and across the U.S.--among the more than 4 million total expected between 2008 and 2012:

The banks must be held accountable for the destruction they have caused in our communities. Every 13 seconds, another home goes into foreclosure. Urban areas across the country that are already beaten down by high unemployment rates, violence, health concerns and substandard education systems stand in the eye of the storm of the foreclosures. This storm leaves in its wake so much destruction it makes Hurricane Katrina seem like a spring shower.

Some 2,000 people demonstrated outside the American Bankers Association meeting in Chicago
Some 2,000 people demonstrated outside the American Bankers Association meeting in Chicago (Lee Sustar | SW)

The protest, dubbed the Showdown in Chicago, was called by the National People's Coalition (NPC), a network of grassroots community groups, religious organizations and unions. Anchoring the effort was the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which was represented by several top officials, including union President Andy Stern. New AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was a featured speaker--a noteworthy development, given the tension between the AFL-CIO and the SEIU's breakaway Change to Win union federation.

Trumka, the former leader of the United Mine Workers of America, gave one of his trademark fiery speeches:

The bankers have turned the American economy into their own private casino. Gambling away our financial future with our money. Bringing us to the brink of a second Great Depression, and then sticking out a hand for taxpayers to bail them out. And bankers, let me tell you, we didn't put you back in business so you could pay billions of dollars in bonuses to the suits. Those bonuses have to go, and mortgage relief has to come our way.

Anna Burger, chair of Change to Win, roused the crowd with a series of questions, asking if the banks had renegotiated sub-prime loans, loaned money to small business or financed the creation of jobs--and got the same answer each time: "No." She led the crowd in one of the most popular chants of the day: "Enough is enough!"

A few rank-and-file labor activists were also featured, including Armando Robles, president of United Electrical (UE) workers Local 1110, the union that carried out the successful factory occupation at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago that forced Bank of America to make good on workers' severance package. Robles said was proud that his co-workers fought back. "Everybody has to do it, no matter what," he said. "For dignity, for respect, for our families--for the working class."

Also speaking was another UE local president, Keith Scribner, who represents workers fighting to force Wells Fargo to pay up for workers' severance pay at the now closed Quad City Die Casting. The banks "got $330 billion in taxpayer bailouts and backstops, and they're using our money to fight reforms that would protect us in the future," Scribner said, before presenting cutout effigies of leading Wall Street bankers with pink slips and leading the crowd in the chant of "You're fired."

THE DEMANDS that the speakers put forward on Congress--stopping foreclosures, creating a new consumer finance protection agency with real teeth, passing financial reform legislation that bars speculative risk-taking--are urgently needed.

Yet the call for next steps in this fight was limited. For his part, Trumka urged those in attendance to call their representatives and senators in Congress. And while SEIU Illinois State Council President Tom Balanoff declared that that the event would mark the beginning of a national movement, details weren't forthcoming.

SEIU President Andy Stern, who stood on stage during the event, but didn't speak, said that his union backed the protest because "we've got a country that's upside down" in its priorities. "We need to do like we did at Republic Windows, and what we did to Ken Lewis," he said, referring to the successful pressure campaign to oust Lewis as CEO of Bank of America.

The protest was a capstone to three days of meetings organized by the NPC, which mobilized activists from 20 states to organize a counter-event to the bankers' convention. The events began October 25 with a meeting of 500 people at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, a few blocks away from where the bankers met. The keynote speaker was Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who blasted payday lenders and corrupt practices by some banks. Durbin did not, however, criticize bankers in general.

In stark contrast were the stories from participants in the People's Commission--people who were pushed to the wall by home foreclosures and forced to fight back, and in the process became leaders of their communities in the struggle for shelter. For example, Rosario Frisse talked of the many homes she and other activists have been able to save by holding direct actions against Bank of America.

With stories like these still on their mind, activists protested a few hours later outside the American Bankers Association ball--which, incredibly enough, had a "Roaring Twenties" theme.

The second day of the "Showdown" attracted some 600 people. It began with a teach-in and session with Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chair Sheila Bair, who called on the audience to support Barack Obama's call for a new agency to protect consumers.

But what suited the activists' mood better was what came next: a march on the Chicago headquarters of Goldman Sachs. The marchers went to deliver a message demanding that Goldman's $23 billion bonus pool be donated to the efforts to stop foreclosures in the coming year--and demonstrators occupied the building's lobby for 30 minutes to underline their point.

THE LIVELY final march and rally outside the bankers' convention deserves to be repeated, but on a much larger scale. What's needed is a mass march on Wall Street to turn up the heat on the banks, or a large-scale protest in Washington to shake up Congress and the financial lobbyists--and the White House, which has put bankers at the head of the line in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.

A decade ago, the then-unified AFL-CIO mobilized tens of thousands of union members to protest the World Trade Organization in Seattle to protest the impact of corporate globalization. Today's recession--in part the result of the same pro-business policies protested in Seattle--has been incalculably more devastating to working people. The unions should mobilize on at least as large a scale in response.

Certainly, labor leaders aren't keen to cross Obama on economic policy or much else. They prefer to play an inside game in Washington, and target banks rather than their enablers like Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, White House economic adviser Larry Summers and Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke.

Nevertheless, by organizing a protest against the banks, the National People's Coalition and its backers in the unions have put down an important marker.

So far, the media has focused almost entirely on "populist anger" from the right--in the form of the "tea party" protests. The Showdown in Chicago highlighted the potential for labor, progressives and the left to take the initiative, and put forward a pro-worker agenda.

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