Main Street to Wall Street:'Listen Up'
Business + Economy

Main Street to Wall Street:'Listen Up'

Angry union members and others take to NYC streets, protesting the excesses of big banks

Nick Bhardwaj/The Fiscal Times

Chanting “Good jobs for all!” and “Wall Street, fix the mess you made,” more than 15,000 union members, activists, workers and students rallied outside City Hall in New York City Thursday afternoon, marching through the canyons of lower Manhattan to  Wall Street to protest in front of Goldman Sachs, Citibank, and other besieged big banks.

Thursday’s event was the largest, and latest, in a series of events over the last several weeks organized by the AFL-CIO, SEIU (Service Employees International Union), PICO National Network, National People’s Action, and others. “We want to make sure Wall Street gets the message that American workers aren’t going to be their ATM machines anymore,” said AFL-CIO representative Josh Goldstein.

Organizers want banks to start lending to small- and medium-size businesses again; to stop fighting against financial reform; and to pay to “restore the jobs that they helped destroy,” said Goldstein. “Our country is facing an 11-million-job-deficit right now, and that’s due in large part to the greed of Wall Street that helped collapse our economy.”

A spokesperson from Bank of America, Kelly Sapp, told The Fiscal Times on Thursday that the bank repaid TARP a while ago (the bank received $199 billion in federal bailout funds). She noted its support for local communities and banks. “The bank supports financial regulatory reform, and we’ve noted that publicly,” she said. “We respect the rights of individuals to demonstrate peacefully, though we don’t necessarily agree with some of their statements or approaches.” Calls and emails to other banks were not returned.

According to a March 25 Pew Economic Policy Group survey, 42 percent of Americans think making Wall Street banks repay the bailout money is the most important issue on Congress’s agenda, more so than reforming health care or preventing another financial crisis. In addition, 78 percent of Americans blame either big Wall Street banks or bad decisions in Congress for the financial crisis, while 69 percent favor tougher regulations, limiting the size of financial firms and limiting the ability of companies to take big financial risks.  

“The compensation bonus pool for the big six banks—over $130 billion—would solve the entire budget crisis for all the states,”  Stephen Lerner, a veteran SEIU organizer, told The Huffington Post. He also protested outside Bank of America last year, calling for the resignation of Kenneth D. Lewis, former CEO.

Compelling Stories

Some of Thursday’s protestors went to interesting lengths to make their feelings known. A few were dressed as cash machines that read, “I Am Not Your ATM.” Others toted signs saying, “Wall Street Overdrafted Our Economy!”

Risa DeVinney, 21, a student from SUNY Brockport in upstate New York, was part of a group dressed in prison stripes and shackles. Each member wore the name of a different bank around his or her neck. DeVinney, who sported a Goldman Sachs sign, said she and other students from her class on democracy had driven down from Buffalo for the protest. “I’m here because Wall Street needs to give back to Main Street,” she said. “Our tax money shouldn’t go back to their big bonuses.”

DeVinney, a senior majoring in political science, will graduate next month but said she has no job lined up yet. She plans to waitress until she can find the right position. She joined the protest on Thursday to make things better for people like herself, she said, and hoped her participation would have an impact. “We came at a really good time,” she said. “We hope everyone will be listening, with eyes on us.” The organizers timed the protests to take place while the Senate is debating and voting on bank reform legislation.

Speakers at the rally said that their buildings were going into foreclosure because of bad lending practices and that they were being evicted from their apartments. Today, they said, was their chance to make the banks listen.

Emmanuel Rogers, 35, of Buffalo, wanted to let Wall Street know “that we’re not just going to lay there and take this beating.” Rogers said he was marching on behalf of family and friends who had lost homes and jobs in the recession. “It’s sad to see people go from working class to homeless,” he said. “I don’t think these CEOs who’ve been bailed out see or want to see that bad things have happened.”

NAACP president Ben Jealous said that it was up to working people and their unions to take control of the country from the banks. “They think they can buy our country because they have the most organized money,” he said. “But I’m here to tell you that we have the most organized people. Money can buy votes, but it can’t vote.”

To roaring cheers, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told the crowd that they were going to march for downsized factory workers in Indiana, for retirees worried about their pensions, for community banks that can’t raise capital, and for entrepreneurs who can’t get loans.

“When greed runs amuck on Wall Street, it means lost jobs and shattered stores on Main Street,” he said. “We must have a different type of economy, where Wall Street is the servant, not the master, of Main Street. We need an economy where banks create jobs and don’t destroy them.”

George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action, explained that the rallies will next head to Washington, D.C., where organizers hope to draw a connection between the banks on K Street, their lobbyists, and Capitol Hill. He said he’d like to create a wall that reads, “Which Side Are You On?” so that legislators could choose to stand beside—or against—the banks. “It’s time to side with the American folks,” Goehl said.

So far, Goldstein said, the organized events haven’t had a measurable impact on banks’ attitudes. Protestors who delivered their demands at a Wells Fargo shareholder meeting in San Francisco “were in large part ignored.” But organizers plan to press on. “We’ll continue to bring people out and give opportunities to make their voices heard to the banks,” said Goldstein.

Goehl said the banks and lawmakers will get a vivid representation of angry Americans who want real change in the nation’s economy. “As they see an anger galvanizing around the banking issue, they know they’ve got to act,” he said.

Blaire Briody contributed to this report.