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Working In These Times

Sunday, Sep 20, 2009, 9:27 pm

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

BY Art Levine

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 With 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 With 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.

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 Rober 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.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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