The New Bottom Line

Fighting organized money takes organized people.

An October 2010 rally outside the American Bankers Association convention in Boston. Photo by Kelly Creedon

Spring is shareholder meeting season for the big banks. These meetings are usually carefully scripted events, ignoring a handful of dissenters and quickly voting down shareholder resolutions that challenge unfair bank policies. But this year was different. For two weeks, from coast to coast and north to south a growing coalition of community groups and labor unions confronted and challenged Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase, demanding they pay to help fix the economy they crashed.

In Seattle, a weather balloon held up a banner that read “Wells Fargo, pay your taxes” as Judith Runstad, a local Wells Fargo board member, departed for the bank’s annual shareholder meeting in San Francisco.

Runstad and other board members and shareholders were met by hundreds of us: homeowners, clergy members, and union leaders. We surprised them by attending the meeting with shareholder proxies. Twelve community leaders were arrested when they openly challenged Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf to stop foreclosing on families.

We knelt and prayed for justice in Charlotte with religious leaders at the Bank of America meeting, calling on the bank to follow the words of Micah and not “defraud people of their home.”

We marched 20,000 strong in New York City, shutting down much of Wall Street as part of a week of actions demanding that banks and millionaires pay their fair share so that there is money to fund critical public services.

We crossed a “moat” using a portable drawbridge in Columbus, Ohio, at the JPMorgan Chase shareholder meeting where people dressed as Robin Hood outwitted an army of security to march on the meeting. Despite the use of mace, police horses, and dogs, hundreds of protesters held their ground while others who had shareholder proxies confronted CEO Jamie Dimon directly.

“As a person of faith, my God believes you shouldn’t take advantage of people when they are down,” said Dawn Dannenbring of the community group Illinois People’s Action while addressing Dimon. “Do you believe in the same God I believe in?”

Dimon’s response: “That’s a hard one to answer.”

There were also dozens of similar demonstrations against the bad behavior of banks and Wall Street going on around the country from Florida to Illinois, Iowa, Maine, and Missouri. They were all connected together with a common message about “making Wall Street and big banks pay” to fix the economy they wrecked. There was widespread local and national media coverage, and we used Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, websites, and Internet ads to spread our message about both who caused the economic crisis and the role banks should play in getting people back to work, keeping people in their homes, and raising the revenue to fund local and state governments.

All of this, of course, didn’t happen by accident.

The New “Alignment”

Wall Street bankers crashed the economy, but none of them have been held accountable for their crimes. They have not paid to fix what they broke, and they continue to duck from paying their fair share of taxes. The result: a shrinking middle class, widening gaps in wealth inequality, and our most vulnerable populations spiraling into deeper debt, wealth loss, and joblessness.

Two years ago, at the height of the economic collapse, National People’s Action, the PICO National Network, IAF Southeast, and SEIU started to work together to do something about this.

What started as informal, ad hoc coordination has now grown into The New Bottom Line, an alignment that is operating with an unprecedented level of strategic collaboration in dozens of states, with hundreds of organizers on the ground, representing well over 1,000 organizations. In addition to the original organizations, the Alliance for a Just Society, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and others joined the mix to guide the founding of The New Bottom Line. While SEIU is not an official member of The New Bottom Line, SEIU and other unions have been integral parts of local campaigns across the country, and nationally, SEIU has provided critical research support to the campaign.

Over the last two years these groups have coordinated hundreds of actions, big and small, ranging from the “Showdown in Chicago” demonstration during the annual American Bankers Association meeting in 2009 to occupying bank branches, passing blight ordinances, and carrying out home defender work that forces banks to modify mortgages and keep people in their homes.


In the last year, these groups have officially joined together under the banner of The New Bottom Line to hold Wall Street accountable for the ongoing economic crisis facing working families and communities in the United States and to forge a new economy that works for all.

United, these groups are working to:

  • Restructure Wall Street in a way that helps families build wealth, closes growing income and wealth gaps, and addresses the structural wealth disparities that exist along racial lines.
  • Reclaim and shift our nation’s politics toward a serious conversation about what it will take to restore economic opportunity for all.
  • Energize and activate millions of people to advance a vision for a “new bottom line” that reinstills basic values of fairness and economic security as the basis for a new economy.

Creating the New Bottom Line

Community organizing networks are the opposite of the banking industry in almost every way. We have a history of competing with each other over resources and turf, and tend to be focused on local issues with limited resources and capacity, as compared to big banks, who come equipped with a national strategy and unlimited resources.

However, if we are to challenge the dominance of Wall Street, big banks (and the concentration thereof), and corporate power, we must work together. Gone are the days when a local organization could take on a local or regional bank and force them to negotiate. The consolidation of the banking industry leaves us no choice but to knit together all of our work into a coordinated and escalating national campaign focused on the role of big banks and Wall Street while remaining nimble enough to keep from creating a bureaucracy that stifles innovation. We need powerful on-the-ground and online organizing, combined with a narrative that both informs and moves millions of people in order to influence the political and economic direction of this country.

Collaboration on this scale is much more than just throwing a bunch of organizations together under a common name. It’s about knitting together the threads of our organizations, our staff, and the issues we work on. It can be a time consuming and sometimes frustrating process to figure out how organizations with different cultures, histories, and organizing styles work together. The original collaboration started with National People’s Action and the PICO National Network joining forces to build a more robust organizing response to the foreclosure crisis. From the beginning, there was a continual focus on ensuring that NPA and PICO members were in the room with each other — building relationships, developing strategy, and moving into action together.

Other key networks, such as the Alliance for a Just Society, and independent organizations, such as the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, joined the mix, leading to the founding of the New Bottom Line. As the work evolves, more unions and other organizations, like the Virginia Organizing Project, are aligning with the campaign, because there is no other way to build the scale, scope, and capacity we need to take on Wall Street and the big banks. Collectively, through our steering committee, we have blended national staff teams, blurred the lines between the networks, and grown our organizing to reach 30 states. Groups that join are typically grassroots organizing groups who approached us, but the New Bottom Line also engages in active recruitment.

Groups have had to balance their own egos with the need for a national movement that can take on the big banks and actually deliver real solutions. We co-brand The New Bottom Line and individual organizing members in press releases, online action alerts, on-the-ground actions, public statements, and more. When the campaign puts out a public statement, we rotate leaders from the national networks who are featured in the statement. We use The New Bottom Line website not just for the campaign’s work, but to highlight and tell the stories of local groups across the country and connect the dots into a national arc.

Members of The New Bottom Line are constantly working to develop and deepen common frames that we all advance together as a coalition publicly. But we must also recognize that we’re not going to always be in lockstep on exact language within each organization. Our members focus on housing organizing, immigration work, low-wage worker organizing, and more; they reflect different communities, from religious leaders to union members, from rural farmers to urban dwellers. All have different needs, self-interests, and ways they look at the world. Advancing the same strategic concepts while adapting the language to fit our constituencies is always a delicate and constant balance.

Last, but not least, we are connecting the groups to each other to help promote and support each other’s actions, events, and victories through social media tools. At the core, The New Bottom Line brand is only as strong as the power and impact of the local groups.

A campaign to make Wall Street pay its fair share and change the bad practices of the biggest banks allows us to capture the core work of all of our organizations in a big national campaign while engaging and expanding our base locally around issues they care about. The key idea is to get off of defense and go on offense by focusing on how changing big bank practices can help fix the economy.

The Campaign

The key goals of the campaign are:

  • Advancing revenue solutions that make big banks fix what they broke and pay their fair share toward cleaning up the economic mess they created. Identifying the revenue generation opportunities that will shore up our communities’ and country’s budget without bankrupting everyday people. And, last but not least, creating jobs and putting America back to work.
  • Reshaping the practices of Wall Street to win changes in their corporate policies around foreclosures, financing payday lending, community development and small business lending, vacant properties, and other banking issues.
  • Advancing a new economic narrative that provides real solutions that will help rebuild vibrant communities and pave the way for a vision of a new economy. Developing a long-term narrative that provides the stories and concepts for that vision, while also intervening at key flash moments, from the debt debate and the upcoming Super Congress to the upcoming 2012 election season.

The key issues of the day all circle back to the outsized and destructive role of banks and big corporations on the economy and politics of the country. You can’t fix housing without making banks pay. You can’t fix state, local, and national budgets unless you close loopholes, stop subsidizing banks, and make them pay their fair share. And you can’t stop layoffs and put people back to work unless banks start loaning money to small businesses, and people have more money to spend because their cost of their mortgage went down.

We are going on the offense in order to shift the debate as we head into the 2012 election season and for upcoming local, state, and national budget and legislative battles. This fall, The New Bottom Line launched a rolling series of actions in dozens of cities across the country — consecutive days of multiple direct actions designed to capture press and public attention, put politicians and corporate class on notice, and set the stage for 2012.

The weeks of action are taking place in over a dozen cities, targeting the banks and big corporations that got rich by not paying their taxes, and evicting people from their homes through fraudulent mortgage practices. Within these weeks of action, we are launching campaigns to win blight ordinances, foreclosure taxes, and other legislation that shifts the financial burden to banks, along with campaigns to get local governments to divest from banks that won’t stop foreclosures or renegotiate debt from toxic loans.

Throughout the fall, we will expose how deeply unpopular austerity is among most Americans, remind people of the true villains behind the economic collapse and how they benefit, insert the real solutions needed into the national debate, and kick off a dynamic, large-scale, strategic campaign leading into the 2012 elections that will force political candidates to choose which side are they on: Wall Street or Our Street?

The stakes have never been higher. We live in one of those rare moments in history when it really matters what we believe, what we say and most importantly what we do. By acting together, going on offense, pushing ourselves and our organizations to do things we never before thought were possible we can overcome the power of Wall Street, start to build a just economy, and reclaim a political system that has been hijacked by the narrowest and wealthiest interests.

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Stephen Lerner is the architect of the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, serves on the SEIU’s International Executive Board, and is a senior advisor to SEIU president Mary Kay Henry.
George Goehl is executive director of National People’s Action.

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