Here Come the Unions

Here Come the Unions


View a slideshow of images from the showdown in Chicago here.

On Tuesday morning, in Chicago, the unions came to town. It was the final day of the rolling protest dubbed The Showdown in Chicago, a confrontation with the American Bankers Association, whose members had gathered for their annual meeting. With a crowd estimated at 5,000, it was without a doubt the largest demonstration against Wall Street’s ravages since the economy crashed a year ago.

From the desperate manufacturing sector came members of the Sheet Metal Workers and the Machinists and the Steelworkers. From the collapsed housing market came the Carpenters and the Painters and the Insulators. There were laid off workers from shuttered factories – Republic Doors and Windows, whose battle over severance pay was captured in Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story, and Quad City Die Casting, whose hundred employees all lost their jobs with far less fanfare last month. Pulling up the rear, a large contingent of garment workers from Hart Marx, suit makers to the president, who successfully fought off a shutdown threatened by creditor Wells Fargo, saving some 3,500 jobs. And, of course, a vast purple army from the Service Employees Union, SEIU.

"There is something wrong with America," Anna Burger, SEIU’s secretary treasurer, told the crowd, in the stirring rhetoric that was typical of the day. "Over a year ago the big banks on Wall Street, because of their greed and risky decisions, put our whole country and our whole economy at risk. And what did they do? They came to us. They asked for trillions of dollars and they said they would help us rebuild our economy. Did they rebuild our economy? Did they stop home foreclosures? Did they cut interest rates? Did they lower bank fees? Did they stop layoffs? Did they extend credit to small businesses? Or create new jobs? No. What did they do? They squeezed us harder. They exploited us more, raked in millions in fees, made lots of money and now they’re giving themselves bigger bonuses than ever before." The shouting in response to her was boisterous, as it was to equally tough words from AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.

"These are Obama’s voters," Rob Johnson, a former chief economist for the Senate Banking Committee, had observed to me the day before. "These are African Americans and church people and community organizations. That means he’s not standing with the people who elected him."

Few of the labor leaders I spoke with – Trumka, SEIU president Andy Stern – were willing to admit there was any daylight between their positions and Obama’s when it came to reining in the banks. "We’re on exactly the same page," Trumka told me as we marched toward the Sheraton. "It’s the bankers and Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Alliance of Manufacturers, that we’re up against." He cited the significant progress in recent weeks in moving a regulatory agenda.

In fact, when you start to catalogue it all, it does start to feel like a corner’s been turned. The House Financial Services Committee reporting out a bill to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Another bill approved by that same committee, also in a party line vote, this one to regulate privately traded derivatives. A promise by the Securities Exchange Commission to use its powers to better regulate the shadow economy, through new reporting requirements on the opaque private trading systems known as "dark pools." The anticipated introduction of legislation next week that would give the government the power to dissolve troubled banks that are now considered "too big to fail."

But the obstacles ahead are massive, and they don’t come only from the swarm of well-paid lobbyists for the banking and finance industries that have overrun Capitol Hill of late (funded in part by at least $11 million from bailout recipients such as Bank of America, Citigroup, and AIG). "Summers, Geithner, they are Wall Street," Rev. Jesse Jackson, who joined the march, told me. "They just moved south."

It was during Jackson’s final closing prayer that the pain underlying the day’s tough talk was allowed to show. "Those who lost jobs, bless them," he said, and a woman to my left, eyes closed, echoed him: "Bless them." "Those who’ve lost their houses," Jackson continued, "bless them. Those who died in need of health care in an emergency room, bless them."


Read Esther’s reporting from Day 1 and Day 2 of the Showdown in Chicago.


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