April 9, 2010 -- Outrage over bonuses, bailouts and home foreclosures have prompted angry demonstrations at bank office buildings, bank conferences and even bankers' homes since the financial crisis began. With Wall Street reform proposals up for debate in Congress and bank shareholder meetings taking place later this month, protest organizers say they're getting ready to rally the troops again with several new demonstrations expected to draw thousands.
"There's something fundamentally wrong with an economic and political system that allows the big banks to rewrite all the rules to stay afloat while allowing entire communities to collapse in the wake of the disaster caused by Wall Street," Anna Burger, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said on a conference call with reporters Thursday. "That's why we're escalating and expanding this campaign."
The SEIU, one of the most vocal critics of Wall Street and big U.S. banks, is part of a coalition of at least six groups -- including the AFL-CIO; the National People's Action, a racial and economic justice advocacy group; PICO National Network, a faith-based group; and North Carolina United Power, an organization of religious and community groups -- planning demonstrations across the country later this month.
Organizers are calling on banks to help people stay in their homes, offer more small business loans, stop offering financing to payday lenders and stop attempts to block financial reforms. They say they're targeting their demands at the country's biggest banks: Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo.
The American Bankers Association, one of the banking industry's top lobbying groups, declined to comment on the planned protests. Last October, an ABA conference in Chicago drew 5,000 protesters, organizers say.
A spokeswoman for Bank of America, which will be the target of at least two demonstrations scheduled for later this month, said of the protesters: "While we understand their passion on the issue, we don't necessarily agree with some of their statements and approaches."
On Wall Street itself, news of the planned protests was met with disdain by some of the street's rank and file.
"I mean, there is a lot of excess on Wall Street, you know, with the bonuses, but there are people that deserve it," said Michael Maresca, an information technology employee at JPMorgan Chase. "People down here work very, very hard ... I think there's also a lot to blame outside of Wall Street, with the Federal Reserve, politicians, the Federal Reserve, all those guys that have been involved -- there's a lot of blame to go around, I think. It's directed at the wrong place."
Wall Street Workers Weary of Bank Protests
Alan Valdes, a trader with DMC Securities, said he didn't think bank protests help anyone and have kept people from taking advantage of a lucrative rebound in the stock market.
"We've still got problems, and we've still got a lot of headwinds ahead -- there's no question about it. But (for the market) to be up 75 percent in a year -- that's a great market," he said. "To keep bashing Wall Street, I think, is wrong. It sends the wrong message to the public ... With all this bashing that's going on, a lot of people, I think have stayed away from the market."
Jerry, an employee at a Wall Street law firm who did not want his last name used, said he didn't see the new protests accomplishing much.
"They protest down there all the time," he said, "but it's not going to do nothing."
How effective previous protests have been remains in question.
When it comes to changing public policy, behind-the-scenes moves, including lobbying politicians and bureaucrats , typically work better than "outsider tactics" like demonstrations, said Dean Lacy, a professor of government at Dartmouth College.
While much attention is paid to the massive amounts of cash that banks and lobbying groups pump into political campaigns, Lacy said lobbyists also have an advantage over grassroots protesters because they can make more targeted moves, such as urging a Congressional committee to block a specific provision in a bill or influencing an agency to change its enforcement of an existing policy.
"Protests tend to not have precise targets but seek broad-based change," Lacy said.
Single protests, he said, tend not to be effective. A series of demonstrations like those of the civil rights movement, however, can successfully draw media attention and raise public awareness, which may ultimately lead to policy changes, he said.
Bank protests thus far, he said, "have probably raised public awareness about executive pay and the bailouts of banks and other financial institutions."
Protests are planned for the last week of the month at the Wells Fargo shareholder meeting in San Francisco; at the Bank of America shareholders' meeting in Charlotte, N.C.; outside a Bank of America building in Kansas City; and on Wall Street. Next month, the groups will also converge on K Street in Washington D.C. to protest banks' lobbying of elected officials.
PR Campaign by JPMorgan's Dimon?
When asked about the expected protests at their bank buildings, both Wells Fargo and Bank of America representatives cited their banks' track records in addressing some of the issues raised by activisits.
A Wells Fargo spokeswoman said the bank recognizes that "Americans are demanding more from their financial institutions during these difficult economic times" and that it is "committed to serving the financial needs of businesses and individuals, keeping credit flowing, and working to help those in financial distress find solutions."
The bank, she said in an e-mail, provided $711 billion in loans and lines of credit last year.
A Bank of America spokeswoman said that BofA last year extended $758 billion in credit in both the consumer and commercial sectors, more than any other bank, and that it has invested more than $8 million in grants to tackle hunger and housing needs. Information about the Bank of America's work in these areas, she said, is available in its quarterly impact statement on the bank's Web site.
In Thursday's call, Burger singled out JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon as "leading the PR campaign to rebrand Wall Street," noting that the bank spent $6.2 million on lobbying last year.
"The American people aren't buying Jamie's PR campaign," she said.
A JPMorgan Chase spokeswoman declined to comment.
JPMorgan Chase is known, along with Goldman Sachs, for avoiding many of the pitfalls of the financial crisis.
In his annual letter to shareholders earlier this month, Dimon said "punitive efforts" against banks hurts ordinary shareholders and that"vilify(ing) whole industries" denigrates "much of what made thiscountry successful."
"When we reduce the debate over responsibility and regulation to simplistic and inaccurate notions, such as Main Street vs. Wall Street, big business vs. small business or big banks vs. small banks, we are indiscriminately blaming the good and the bad ? this is simply another form of ignorance and prejudice," Dimon wrote.