With the clink of poker chips sounding in the background, two dozen labor activists gathered in the shadow of downtown Buffalo's Bank of America branch to demand that the country's big banks act -- or be forced to act -- to restore some of the 9 million jobs that were lost in the financial crisis that those banks caused.
"When the banks were in trouble, they took our tax dollars to get back on their feet," said Andy Reynolds, representing the Buffalo Coalition for Economic Justice. "Now it is time for Bank of America to pay to get working families back on their feet."
Part of the protest was the self-described theatrics of three labor supporters, dressed in business suits and labeled "Bank of America," "Buffalo Niagara Partnership" and "Health Care Industry" playing poker. "Gambling with our lives," the sign said.
"Wall Street has been protected at the expense of Main Street families," said Sam Williams, a United Auto Workers leader and
co-chairman of the Western New York Area Labor Federation. "Wall Street must restore the jobs that they destroyed."
Risky practices on Wall Street that caused the Great Recession pushed the banks to the brink of collapse, Williams said, and when the federal government determined that those banks were "too big to fail," it provided $45 billion in taxpayer bailouts from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
But since then, Williams said, the banks have gone back to business as usual. While much of the bailout money is being repaid to the federal treasury -- Bank of America has repaid all of the $45 billion it received -- the supposedly rescued banks have failed to pump more money toward restarting the economy. Instead, he said, the bankers paid themselves $145 billion in pay and bonuses and are now ponying up millions in campaign contributions and lobbying expenses to fight any federal reform of the financial industry.
Congress, Williams said, should place a tax on the kind of financial speculation that caused the meltdown. Such a tax would at once discourage the most risky behaviors and raise as much as $300 billion annually that could be used for job creation.
Williams acknowledged that his union's members also benefited from a massive federal bailout, the one that rescued General Motors and Chrysler. But, he said, those bailouts not only saved jobs throughout the economy, they came with strings that led to significant changes in the industry that will help it to be self-sustaining going forward.
"That's not happening with the banks," Williams said. "They are going back to business as usual."
In similar "Make Wall Street Pay" events across the county, local chapters of the AFL-CIO are calling for the federal government to continue extensions of unemployment insurance, food assistance and health benefits, to hire more people to repair the nation's "crumbling infrastructure," provide more assistance to cash-starved state and local governments and use bank bailout money more directly to get credit flowing to small business for job creation.
The American economy, said WNYALF organizer Patty DeVinney, needs to create 2 million jobs a year just to keep up with increases in the working-age population. With the job losses counted in the recession, she said, that left the American economy 11 million jobs in the hole.