Unions head to Chicago, protest banks

Unions converged on Chicago on Tuesday to protest lobbying by major banks against proposed reforms of the financial system.

The AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other labor groups were leading a rally expected to draw 5,000 participants outside the annual conference for the American Bankers Association (ABA).

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“We think the greed and risky decisions by Wall Street led to our economic collapse,” said Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer for SEIU, speaking on the phone from Chicago. “We think it is time to call them out. It is time to let the big banks know that they don’t own the country. People do.”

 “This level of anger demonstrates that people are sick and tired of the banks taking their money and mortgaging away their economy,” said Dan Pedrotty, director of the Office of Investment for the AFL-CIO. 

Burger joined AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and other labor leaders to chastise the banks for opposing efforts on Capitol Hill to reform the financial regulatory system after Wall Street received $700 billion in bailout money from taxpayers.

This year, unions have become increasingly involved in calling for tough new regulations. Labor leaders say many union members saw their retirement plans go up in smoke with the near-collapse of the financial sector and have grown angry at news of exorbitant bonuses for banking executives.

 In particular, labor officials have taken aim at the lobbying operations of the big banks.

 In the wake of the financial meltdown, however, major financial institutions began to pare down on their lobbying, although some companies and trade association continue to spend significant sums trying to influence public policy.

The ABA has spent about $6.1 million on lobbying so far this year, which is less than the $6.5 million that the trade association spent at this point in 2008.

 The ABA’s political action committee, BankPAC, has remained very active, however. It has contributed close to $1.5 million to candidates so far this year, according to the latest report on file with the Federal Election Commission.

 The ABA has had concerns about financial regulatory reform, including the proposal to create a standalone agency to oversee consumer financial products.
In a statement, the trade group said the meeting would go forward despite the union-led march. The group said protesters’ anger was misdirected.

“The men and women attending this meeting are traditional bankers dedicated to serving the needs of their communities. They are here to learn new ways to serve their customers and continue to rebuild the weakened economy,” said the ABA statement. “Bankers want smart regulation, and ABA has testified multiple times in the past year in favor of strong regulatory reform.”

Burger and others union leaders support the consumer financial product protection agency. In addition, labor groups want new regulations over complex financial instruments like derivatives, limitations on CEO pay and one banking regulator to oversee the entire the financial sector.

 Progress is being made on Capitol Hill for reforms of Wall Street. A bill creating a consumer financial protection agency moved out of the House Financial Services Committee last week, winning praise from union officials.

 “The bill moved out of committee is a good bill. It is a major step forward,” Burger said. “We have to keep on it. We cannot let it be watered down any more.”