Organized Labor Puts a Bull's-Eye on Wall Street

Organized labor has declared war on Wall Street.

Activists are expecting 10,000 people to vent their rage Thursday against the giants of the financial system from within the belly of the beast -- on Wall Street itself -- while another 8,000 will participate virtually. Smaller demonstrations have already taken place elsewhere, and more are expected around the country. On Tuesday, hundreds of activists protested at Wells Fargo's (WFC) annual meeting in San Francisco, voicing their outrage at management over the financial crisis. A similar rally is expected to take place Wednesday in Chicago at the Goldman Sachs Group (GS) office there. Bank of America (BAC) was targeted by protesters Tuesday in Kansas City, Mo., and at its shareholder meeting in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday.

"It's time to hold Wall Street accountable," says Heather Booth, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition of 250 organization including unions, civil rights groups and pension funds who will be at Thursday's Wall Street rally, in an interview. "The American people are outraged that they [Goldman Sachs] bet against the future of America ... and are lobbying against real reform."

Financial reform is stalled in the Senate amid objections from Republicans, who on Tuesday issued their own proposal, and Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. David Min, associate director for financial policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, says he expects the two sides to resolve their differences and pass a bill. Even Wall Street anticipates more regulation, he says. The only question is the shape it will take.

"I don't see how they can hold for much longer," he says. "I expect a deal within the next two to three weeks."

65% of Americans Support Tougher Financial Regulation

Indeed, the rallies underscore the widening chasm between Wall Street and Main Street. At times during Tuesday's congressional hearings, the two sides seemed to be speaking different languages. Many CNBC commentators faulted the senators for making routine Goldman Sachs business decisions seem nefarious. But at least one communications expert argued that Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Goldman's chief inquisitor, may have won the public relations battle with CEO Lloyd Blankfein because he spoke in a manner understandable to most people.

"Levin had a simple narrative to tell: Goldman bet against their clients," Jonathan Taplin, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School told Bloomberg News. "Blankfein had these long complicated explanations, but I'm not sure the average person listens or cares about that."

Goldman Sachs' denial of wrongdoing may not fly with most Americans, who continue to take a dim view of banks. AnABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday found that nearly two-thirds of Americans supported tougher financial regulation. Democrats and Republicans say they are close to reaching a deal on the legislation. Similar results were found in a recent poll by Gallup, which found that Americans favor regulating Wall Street banks by a margin of 50% to 36%. Numbers like those explain why organized labor is choosing this moment to flex its muscles.

"Wall Street tanked America's economy, killed jobs, took $700 billion in taxpayer bailouts, then went right back to business as usual, choking off credit, handing out $145 billion in 2009 executive pay and bonuses and fighting meaningful financial reform," according to the AFL-CIO.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is one of Wall Street's few remaining friends. That's not surprising, given that the data and news company he founded, Bloomberg L.P. (where I worked for seven years) is hugely dependent on financial service firms for its revenue. Nonetheless, the billionaire politician made a good point recently when he said, "The bashing of Wall Street is something that should worry everybody."

In the long run, he may be right about that. But it sure is making people feel good in the meantime.