Battling the banksters

Unions and progressive groups organize and protest to push for economic justice

A flashmob targeted two Bank of America branches in San Francisco on April 15

Late in the afternoon of April 15, in the quiet of the huge round Bank of America lobby on Montgomery Street, a young woman suddenly yelled "Bank of America made $4.4 billion in profits in 2009 but paid zero in taxes!" About two dozen bystanders converged in a synchronized dance routine, kicking, strutting, and shimmying to lively music from the Brass Liberation Orchestra while supporters held up signs reading "tax evader."

The event was one of hundreds of "Tax Day" demonstrations around the country on April 15 and 18, sponsored by progressive organizations US Uncut, MoveOn, the AFL-CIO, and many more. US Uncut identified the targets as "corporate tax cheats and unnecessary and unfair public service cuts." They point to big corporations' use of offshore tax havens and specially tailored loopholes to avoid paying federal taxes while Congress is slashing popular programs from education to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Barely two weeks before, on April 4, thousands of union members and their allies gathered in Oakland and San Francisco in two of more than 1,000 rallies across the country expressing support for embattled workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, protesting cuts in public programs, and pushing a simple solution to the country's economic woes: "tax the rich."

"I think what's happening is the rebuilding of a movement," said Josie Camacho, acting executive secretary-treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council. Nina Rubin, a participant in the April 15 Bank of America protest, agreed. "People started rising up in Wisconsin and now sparks are flying all around the country."

At another Bank of America office on Market Street targeted by protesters on April 15, Oakland resident Peggy Maxwell said she heard about the flash mob actions on Facebook and joined "because these cuts [to public services] are going to bring down the country. Unless we make corporations contribute at least their share to offset their bad decisions, there's no hope for anyone not in the top 1 percent."

Marylee Fithian, 75, traveled from Guerneville to participate "because I am a senior who is going to be screwed by these Republican cuts. They claim we're broke, but we're not. If all the corporations paid taxes and we put higher taxes on the very rich, we wouldn't have a problem at all."

Cynthia Reed, a Hyatt Regency telephone operator active in UNITE-HERE Local 2, said she joined the April 4 march in San Francisco because of the attacks on public employee unions in Wisconsin. "If that governor gets rid of the unions, who will stand up for the people's rights, their health care, their pensions, their wages?" she said. "Corporations have their lawyers — who will represent the people?"

Beyond the immediate events, "people really wanted to do something about the crisis we're in and the right-wing manipulation of the political infrastructure," Camacho said. Bob Mandel, an activist in the Oakland Educators Association, said that "lots of people really resent the [2008] bailout [of banks]. The anger is still there," fueled by ongoing economic pressures.

San Francisco resident Christopher Roesner participated in the April 15 Bank of America flashmob wearing a business suit and sporting a faux Bank of America badge identifying him as a specialist in "tax accountability." Formerly a nonprofit finance director, in the current recession, "I lost my job, I lost my house, I lost my health insurance," he said. "I was forced into bankruptcy while the banks got all the money. That's a typical American story now."

In people's lives, the issues converge. Because of the economic crisis, said UNITE-HERE Local 2 activist Reed, employers are "trying to take away our wages, make us pay for pensions and health care — and the cost of living is still going up." Meanwhile, "as people get lower salaries, the [public] programs that are there to help people are being taken away."

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