This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only.

Muddle Messages at Wells Fargo Protest
Not Your Typical Shareholders’ Meeting
by MARK VORPAHL

At the annual Wells Fargo Shareholders’ meeting in San Francisco on Tuesday April 24, 2012, at least 150 “shareholders” were denied their lawful right to attend by means of the use of police force and barricades. True, none of them were big shareholders and their priorities in attending were not to cheerlead the continuing massive profits Wells Fargo rakes in. Instead they hoped to bring to light the predatory role of Wells Fargo in pursuit of these profits — a role that is economically devastating countless working families and their future.

The concerns of these excluded shareholders did not go unheard. They were loudly shouted by a crowd of about 1,200 Occupy, trade union, and community activists in the streets 15 stories below where the shareholders’ meeting was to take place. It was part of a carefully considered plan to use the shareholders meeting as an opportunity to confront the 1% both on their turf, in the exquisite halls of their corporate headquarters, and on ours, the streets.

This tactic has also been employed at a GE Shareholders meeting in Detroit, Michigan and will be used in cities across the nation, targeting a variety of corporate behemoths. It is hoped that this campaign will help to build broad active unity, in the spirit of when Occupy transformed into a mass movement to challenge the priorities of the economic elite and their control of the political system.

It is easy to see why Wells Fargo is one among many of these targets. After having received a bailout of $36.9 billion for an economic crisis their actions helped to create, Wells Fargo continues to hoard billions rather than invest them in job creation efforts. For the last four years Wells Fargo has been taxed at 3.8 percent, saving them $21.6 billion at a time when needed social programs, such as Medicaid and Medicare, are being slashed because of an alleged lack of revenue. They are one of the top banks engaged in foreclosing homes, charging fat interest rates and fees on student loans regardless of the loaned person’s circumstances, issuing predatory loans, as well as rewarding their top executives tens of millions of dollars annually while attacking the living standards of ordinary working people. Privatizing prisons, supporting racist anti-immigrant politicians, funding the growth of inhumane detention centers — the list could go on and on for the ways Wells Fargo has been and continues to be profiting off the misery of the 99%’s. Their actions are far from unique as far as big banks and corporations go, but Wells Fargo is exceptionally successful in pursuing their cold-blooded, short sighted, greedy priorities.

Clearly the corporations are fair game for any mass social movement that seeks to right the wrongs they are inflicting. However, the demands of the protestors at Wells Fargo headquarters, such as the call for progressive taxation and a moratorium on home foreclosures, are not the kind of actions you would ever expect a major corporation to take. This would be like asking a shark to stop hunting its prey.

These are working class political demands and require the targeting of the politicians who have the constitutional power to set the tax rates. The Wall Street funded Republican and Democratic Parties are opposed to such demands, though some Democratic politicians are willing to give them lip service in hopes of garnering a few votes. Nevertheless, these politicians must be judged on their actions, not their words, and the Democratic Party’s inaction on such demands, even while they held the presidency and the majority in both the Congress and Senate, tells us a lot more about their priorities than hours of campaign speeches.

There can be no doubt that some of the architects behind the 99% Spring and the tactic of taking on corporations at their shareholder meetings are hoping to create a political climate that will push the Democrats to the left in a campaign year and get them elected. What is needed, however, is a politically independent social movement large and united enough to continue to struggle for our own demands rather than limit them to what the Wall Street politicians say is possible, even while they pretend to defend our interests. What matters is how we organize for the fight we are facing, regardless of who gets elected.

Shortly after the November election, $2.2 trillion in cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and other needed public programs are slated to go into effect. There will be growing bi-partisan pressure to cut an additional $2 — $4 trillion and go after Social Security. While these social safety nets have been threatened, there have been no serious proposals to address the issue of unemployment with a real jobs program. Consequently, it is of paramount importance that working people build a powerful social movement that remains independent — when formulating its demands and tactics — of both political parties, since both have shown no hesitation in gutting these vital social programs. If we do not chart an independent course, the social movement will shrivel, if it manages to grow at all, in despair and betrayal.

To achieve the largest social movement possible, it is necessary to focus on demands that will promote the broadest unity. At the Wells Fargo Action this approach appeared to be muddled. There was no demand addressing the need for a publicly funded jobs program, though the high rate of unemployment is the number one concern of most U.S. citizens. Also, while in poll after poll there has been wide agreement on the need for progressive taxation (“tax the rich”), this demand was put forward as though it was of equal importance, in terms of building broad-based unity, as stopping the privatization of prisons, for instance. Most U.S. workers are not familiar with this latter issue at this time. Consequently, there needs to be more of an educational process if it is to become a point of unity for a large social movement to galvanize around. It is best to focus on what the majority is ready to move on now in order to create a movement in which the maximum number of people can become exposed to such issues as stopping the privatization of prisons.

It is clear that most of the participants in the events at the corporate shareholder meeting are acting in accordance with the best of Occupy. That is, they are working to build a movement of the 99% that can take on the 1%. If we are going to take on the 1%, though, we need to take on both their political parties as well.

Mark Vorpahl is an union steward, social justice activist, and writer for Workers’ Action - www.workerscompass.org. He can be reached atPortland@workerscompass.org.