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Unions, Progressives To Launch Wall St. Reform Drives This Week

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Unions and progressive coalitions are seeking to add grass-roots organizing power to President Obama’s calls for financial reform, with stepped up activism from the AFL-CIO, Jobs for Justice and the progressive Americans for Financial Reform coalition all starting this week.

Following last week’s AFL-CIO convention that aimed to jump-start reform drives and the union movement, new president Richard Trumka and other leaders will be taking their case for economic reform to Wall Street and the  public. As the AFL-CIO Now blog reported:

The team’s tour continues Sunday and Monday in Atlanta, including a rally outside Wachovia, where Trumka will condemn its predatory financial practices, such as foreclosures. On Monday night and Tuesday, the team travels to New York City where Trumka will issue a strong warning to Wall Street at a press conference outside the New York Stock Exchange.

The goal: create a fairer economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy.

On Thursday, the Jobs for Justice Coalition plans an action—one of many protests scheduled for over 20 cities over the next week—outside a meeting of the pro-banking Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, D.C., a key lobbying coalition opposed to the Administration’s proposed consumer financial protection agency, as well as other reforms.

As a Jobs for Justice press release proclaimed:

Thousands expected to participate in over a dozen cities to mark the one-year anniversary of the bank bailouts.

Nearly a year after Congress authorized hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the financial industry, major banks continue to pay outrageous salaries and bonuses, drive layoffs and foreclosures, and spend millions lobbying against the interests working people.

Rallies across the country will condemn the “bailout bandits” and “corporate criminals” at Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo.

Actions will take place in at least 21 cities, and new cities are being added every week. See below for local contacts and find an up to day list of actions at www.jwj.org/recovery.

There are good reasons for all the anger. But it has has yet to lead to a massive public outpouring for progressive reform, as opposed to the corporate-abetted “Tea Party” events that also decry bailouts along with healthcare reform, while leaving the current toothless oversight of the financial industry in place.

Even though federal officials allowed a free-spending set of bailouts with no requirements and little oversight, virtually nothing has been done to make sure the money isn’t wasted and is spent in ways that benefit the economy. Indeed, nobody really knows how the $700 billion in bailout funds was actually spent.

So while inside-the-beltway analysts claim that Obama has an uphill fight in Congress, out-of-control banks and  Wall Street firms are now squandering taxpayers’ funds while returning to trading in risky investments. And credit is still largely frozen, worsening the “jobless recovery.”

As the Media Consortium summed up in its year-later review of the Wall Street collapse:

While workers experienced increasing pressure on their pocketbooks, Wall Street gambled away their retirement investments. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy one year ago today, a move which created chaos in the financial sector and heavy damage in the rest of the economy. Things were looking bad for the economy before Wall Street imploded, but the financial crisis made those problems a lot worse.

“In a modern society, a credit freeze means instant death to the real economy, since virtually every enterprise, big and small, runs on credit,” Les Leopold explains for In These Times. “When the financial sector froze, it pushed the real economy off a cliff.”

But incredibly, after a year marked by massive financial bailouts, not one new law has been signed to protect our economy–and taxpayers–from Wall Street. Not one.

Even the modest plans to rein in executive pay for taxpayer-supported companies have proved toothless. Leopold notes that President Barack Obama’s refusal to crack down on the banks has left both the financial regulatory process and other important progressive plans–like overhauling the broken health care system–in a precarious political state. The largesse we have shown for bailed-out bankers gives conservatives ammunition against other, more productive activities.

Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-media-consortium/weekly-audit-one-year-aft_b_287290.html

Perhaps the biggest promoter of refom, outside of the president himself, is the potentially influential coalition of 200 labor, consumer and  progressive groups, Americans for Financial Reform. It is planning grassroots actions while working with federal and state government officials to promote greater oversight of the financial system.

Indeed, to shore up support for administration proposals to rein in risky  investments, limit pay and offer a new consumer protection agency — all facing stiff industry opposition — the Treasury Department is reaching out to likely consumer allies, including the AFR organization.

So while some progressives and experts, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, remain skeptical about how committed this administration is to truly reforming a broken financial system, Bloomberg News reports that

Treasury Department officials are meeting with consumer allies to build support for a regulations overhaul for Wall Street as President Barack Obama ramps up a campaign to win legislation by year’s end.

The Treasury roundtables have been largely unpublicized, by invitation only and billed by some Democratic lawmakers as consumer-protection forums. The audiences are drawn in part from the rolls of a consumer-advocacy coalition that is pushing the legislation. They are designed to channel public anger at Wall Street and sidestep the financial industry, which is fighting to block the measure…

Audiences for the events are drawn largely from the membership of Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition of more than 12 dozen consumer, labor and civil rights groups that joined this year to push for oversight. The coalition includes the Service Employees International Union and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Illinois Roundtable

The group will hold its next roundtable in Aurora, Illinois, on Sept. 21. State Attorney General Lisa Madigan will lead the session, and the group has invited Representative Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee.

Another non-profit group, Boston-based American Business Leaders for Financial Reform, is recruiting corporate executives to make the case for legislation. Tim Duncan, a Republican and founder of advisory firm Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Story Street Investment Management, created the organization after a conversation with Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law School professor who oversees the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“There are a lot of people in the industry who realize reform is needed,” Duncan said in a telephone interview. “I’m surprised at the knee-jerk reaction industry is taking.”

But long-time observers of the financial industry aren’t suprised that a major battle lies ahead—and unions hope to play a leading role in pushing for reform.

And yet if this drive for reform falters, the fate of the entire economy is at stake. As Robert Reich described the risks we’re now facing:

Put simply, the Street has been given too many opportunities to play too many games with other peoples’ money.

But, like the health care industry, Wall Street has platoons of lobbyists and an almost unlimited war chest to protect its interests and prevent change. And with the Dow Jones Industrial Average trending upward again — and the public’s and the media’s attention focused elsewhere, especially on health care — it will be difficult to summon the same sense of urgency financial reform commanded six months ago.

Yet without substantial reform, the nation and the world will almost certainly be plunged into the same crisis or worse at some point in the not-too-distant future. Wall Street’s major banks are already en route to their old, dangerous ways — now made more dangerous by their sure knowledge that they are too big to fail.

About the Author: Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly who has also written for The American Prospect, Alternet, In These Times, Salon, The New Republic, The Atlantic and numerous other publications. He’s written investigative articles on unionbusting and other corporate abuses, and recently completed Cornell University’s Strategic Corporate Research summer program. He blogs regularly for Huffington Post, and co-hosts a weekly Blog Talk Radio show, “The D’Antoni and Levine Show,” every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET.

This article originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 20, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

Worker Uprising Against Wells Fargo Spreads After Major Victory to Keep Factories Open

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

This week, workers at Hartmarx Factory won a major victory against Wells Fargo, as Wells Fargo agreed to keep their factory open. The story of the Hartmarx workers had drawn national attention as they threatened to occupy their factory if Wells Fargo closed it. Their victory yesterday represents a major triumph in the growing trend of factory sit ins that started last December when workers, members of United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE) occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago

Last January, Hartmarx, the maker of men’s apparel and an employer of nearly 4,000 people, filed for bankruptcy after Wells Fargo refused to extend them a line of credit. Wells Fargo then pushed for the company to be liquidated in order to increase their short term profits. They favored liquidating the factory and laying off the 4,000 workers despite the fact that there were proposals by several groups to purchase the company and keep it running.

The workers, members of SEIU, refused to accept the bank’s ruling and decided to do something about it. The workers said they were inspired after having gone to see a speaking tour of members of who had occupied Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. They then decided that perhaps they should consider threatening to occupy their plant in order to force the bank to keep it open. The workers then voted to sit-in to occupy that plant if Wells Fargo decided to liquidate it and drew national media attention to their story.

As a result of the worker’s resolve to fight the company, they received a large degree of political and community support. Over 43 members of Congress signed a letter calling on Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to investigate Wells Fargo’s use of bailout money. Congressman Phil Hare, a former worker at Harmarx, promised to be Wells Fargo’s “worst nightmare” if they closed the plant. Finally, State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias brought Wells Fargo to their knees when he threatened to cut off $8 billion dollars worth of business that the state does with Wells Fargo if they closed the plant

As a result of the union members’ activism, community pressure and politicians’ threat to take action against Wells Fargo, the union was able to force the bank to accept a bid from another company to keep the plant open. The final decision represents a major victory in the worker sit-in movement against the banks. The victory at Hartmarx confirms the growing trend that I wrote about last week that whenever these banks are challenged through direct action in a visible, public way that they always fold to demands.

Now the fight moves onto a plant across town from Hartmarx in Moline, Illinois. Wells Fargo has cut off credit to Quad City Die Casting factory. Workers at the plant, who are members of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE), the same union that occupied Republic Windows and Doors last summer, are engaging in direct action against Wells Fargo as they call for Wells Fargo to keep the plant open. So far, Wells Fargo has refused to even sit down with the union and negotiate. The union though has not been dissuaded and promises to continuing fighting the banksters of Wells Fargo.

Last week, UE held protests at over 20 cities throughout the country to protest Wells Fargo. In addition, a delegation from their union visited over 100 congressional offices last week to call for an investigation into how Wells Fargo is using its bailout money. The union charges that after having received $25 billion in bailout money that Wells Fargo has an obligation to look to promote economic recovery by keeping the plant open. Speaking at the protest in Davenport, Iowa, UE Director of Organization Bob Kingsley said, “We can’t let this giant bank default on its obligation to the American people and the people of the Quad Cities. Wells Fargo is a roadblock to economic recovery.”

Now the question is whether we as the progressive movement will join them in solidarity to support keeping factories open. Please go to UE’s website and send a letter to your congressman calling on them to investigate how Wells Fargo has refused to spend its $25 billion in bailout money to support economic recovery. Our resolve as a movement to support the struggle of workers at Quad City Die Casting will determine our ability to support this growing worker uprising to fight banks that have destroyed our economy. Keeping good American manufacturing jobs such as the union jobs at Quad City Die Casting in this country is key to creating a successful economic revival not built on the speculative bubbles of the past. Its time that banks like Wells Fargo get out of the way on the road to economic recovery.

Mike Elk: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer and worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). He works currently as an editor at AlterNet.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet on July 2, 2009. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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