The People Take the Battle to Wall Street

The People Take the Battle to Wall Street

The People Take the Battle to Wall Street

The Senate has finally passed its version of financial reform. Big street protests and voter outrage helped push the bill.


On Monday, May 17, hundreds of demonstrators from unions and community groups marched down Washington, DC’s K Street to demand financial reform. Organizers estimated nearly 3,000 people marched that day—nowhere near the crowd estimates for the financial reform rally on April 29.

That day, nearly 10,000 people descended on New York’s financial district. The "Wall Street Rally" was hailed as the largest anti–Wall Street demonstration since the financial crisis began. Protesters held signs that read "Hold Banks Accountable" and "Make Wall Street Pay," while parading Goldman Sachs effigies—cardboard pigs donning suits and ascots, clenching money they made from "shitty" deals.

The rally—and earlier rallies held across the nation—made a unified call for Wall Street reform. Still, some in the media called the rally misguided. Andrea Peyser of the New York Post mocked the complaints, writing, "Some hated their jobs. Others hated school, the cold, living up in frigid Buffalo. The prospects of the Yankees. Their complaints had no common theme."

CNBC‘s Erin Burnett made a similar implication when interviewing AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.  "I understand that you’re making a point, and that you want to make a clear line in the sand here," she said. "But isn’t it fair or at least would you acknowledge, that it was more than just bankers that caused the problems in America? A lot of big union-run, and union-dealt-with institutions, like the car companies also failed. And that wasn’t just the fault of Wall Street, was it?"

Trumka shot her down. "No, a lot of them didn’t fail," he said. "None of those car companies or anyplace else, any manufacturer, took our economy to the brink of disaster. This did. Wall Street did."

The protests haven’t convinced banking lobbyists to hold their fire. In the first three months of the year, securities and investments firms spent $27.5 million lobbying on financial legislation; commercial firms spent $13 million and finance and credit card companies spent $10.3 million, according to OpenSecrets. As OpenSecrets reported in November 2009, "Even with a number of large financial institutions folding or merging since last fall, the sector has still given more to federal candidates and party committees than any other sector this year at $78.2 million."

"[There] is not quite two [banking and financial industry] lobbyists for every member of Congress," said Dave Levinthal, communication director for Open Secrets and editor of the OpenSecrets blog.

With banks mobilizing millions against financial reform, James Mumm, director of organizing at National People’s Action, said these rallies really did not need much planning to gather participants, and that they were absolutely correct in targeting Wall Street. It only took about two months to organize the April 29 Wall Street rally. "We’re not pulling teeth," he said. "People are angry and they’re looking for a place to voice that anger."

Many of those marching said they observed that unemployment was still widespread, foreclosures continue, and most important, Wall Street bankers continue to dodge blame for the financial crisis.

"If I went to the bank right now and pulled out a gun and robbed the bank and said, ‘Well, I fell on hard times, I don’t have a job, I don’t have any food,’ [then] I’m going to jail," said one marcher. "I’m just not happy with financial regulations. I want to see people actually going to jail because this is robbery what they did to the American people. Financial regulation is not enough for me."

George Goehl, executive director of the National People’s Movement, the original organizer of the march, said even though marchers’ complaints vary, Washington has begun to hear—if not listen to—their overarching demand for comprehensive financial reform.

"This was not happening a year ago," he said, after the march ended in Battery Park. "I would say they hear us but they’re not listening yet. They know there’s a rumble, they know there’s a growing movement, and they know there are more and more people protesting outside of their offices. But have we yet seen a change in corporate policy?  A change in how they treat everyday people? No, we haven’t."

For many of the unions represented at the march, frustrations came down to jobs. The United Federation of Teachers wanted more teachers back in school, and more funding for the schools. The AFL-CIO wanted banks to begin lending to mid-size and small businesses again. National People’s Action also called for more jobs, while unions like SEIU, the largest property service workers union in the country, were asking for a stronger consumers protections—a demand made by many unions and organizations—as well as renegotiating foreclosures with homeowners.

"What’s good about this coalition is we broadly agree on solutions depending on who our memberships are," said Stephen Lerner, director of the private equity project for SEIU.

For Goehl it boiled down to two simple goals. “One, how do you go toe to toe and put more pressure directly on the banks and two, how do you create a which side are you on moment in the Senate. So Senators, whether they are Democrat or Republican, have to pick a side. Are they going to side with Wall Street or are they going to side with the American people?”

Five days before the March on April 24, President Obama didn’t see it quite like Goehl. Speaking at the Cooper Union to Syracuse University, he said:  "Ultimately, there is no dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. We rise or we fall together as one nation."

Obama may be right. But Wall Street has not suffered as Main Street has, said Dan Pedrotty, director of the AFL-CIO Office of Investment. For them, Wall Street’s "no mea culpa" will not pass and marches will continue to grow and look to Wall Street and Washington for answers.

"When the largest financial institutions in the world needed hundreds of billions of dollars if not trillions of dollars, suddenly the government worked," said Pedrotty. "That woke people to the fact that there is a government that can function, but it’s just not functioning in their interest."  

The financial reform bill broadly addresses more consumer protections, more transparency for over-the-counter derivatives as well as provisions for the government to "seize and break up failing financial firms."

The need for a strong CFPA and more transparency has been a talking point for many unions and community organizations, including the AFL-CIO, SEIU, the Other 98 Percent and National People’s Action.

"It is critical that [the CFPA] be independent—that it not be captive to any regulator," said Pedrotty, adding that credit cards, subprime loans and student loans have all become unbridled instruments of debt. Still, he is surprised the bill stands where it does today.

"If you asked me three or four months ago, I’d be resigned to say ‘Yes there’s a bill that comes out but it’s not going to be a very strong bill,’" he said. "Now we’re seeing a bill to rewrite the bills of Wall Street and the momentum is really on the side of building something significant."

On May 20 the Senate passed its version of financial reform, which will now be reconciled with the House version.  Progressive Democratic dissenters Maria Cantwell and Russ Feingold, who felt that the bill did not offer sufficient consumer protections, voted against the bill, but four Republicans broke party lines to support it.

Some Democrats have sought to restore the Glass-Steagall Act that would create more government oversight for commercial and investment banks. Others have considered instituting the "Volcker Rule," which would prohibit banks from betting on deals damaging to their customers.

With the financial reform bill now headed to reconciliation, will the marchers stop? Not until Wall Street marches right alongside, and in step, with Main Street.

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