March on Wall Street: Labor for Trading Tax

The AFL-CIO stages a march on Wall Street to advance its biggest priority: a trading tax.
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(March on Wall Street article updated to reflect latest Thursday afternoon news.)

NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) -- A march on Wall Street.

These days, the words have the same ring as "march on Washington" might have had in the 1960s.

Of course it's not as dramatic or historically significant as that. But on Thursday afternoon, at 4 pm EDT, after the brokers stopped roaring on the floor of the bourse, thousands of union members convened at Barclay St. and Broadway, at the cusp of Manhattan's financial district.

Thursday's rally was organized by the AFL-CIO and an association of community groups. The protesters included people hurt by the mortgage crisis, and they held up signs bearing slogans: "Wall Street Overdrafted Our Economy" and "Reclaim America" were two examples.

Earlier on Thursday, more than 100 people entered a midtown building housing

JPMorgan Chase

(JPM) - Get Report

offices. They handed a letter to a building worker and chanted "Bust up big banks!" and "People power!" They were calmly escorted outside by police.

After some speechifying and the attendant histrionics -- placards, chants, and perhaps one notorious plutocrat or other hoisted in papier-mache effigy -- the gathered thousands paraded south toward the sculpture of the bull that snorts in heated perpetuity from its plinth, where Broadway intersects with Whitehall, a few blocks from the former headquarters of

Goldman Sachs

(GS) - Get Report

.

Arranged by the AFL-CIO -- the amalgamated labor union born a century ago out of the tyrannical practices of the robber barons (great Wall Street clients, them) -- the march was meant to press home what many believe is the need for a complete overhaul of the American financial system. That overhaul now sits in the U.S. Senate in the form of a bill, to be debated shortly on the floor.

In the simple dichotomies of the moment, the AFL-CIO wants to "take Main Street's voice to Wall Street."

But more than sloganeering, the event's organizers say, the march had concrete designs.

"We're going to demand that Wall Street pay for the jobs it destroyed," said Dan Pedrotty, the director of the AFL-CIO's office of investment, on the phone with

TheStreet

from his office in Washington earlier in the week.

If it seems as though there's an element of class war in all this, that's because there's an element of class war in all this.

As people on both sides of the financial reform argument are wont to do, Pedrotty paraphrased

Warren Buffett

. "He says that there's class war going on in this country, and that

his

side is winning."

Nine million jobs lost during the recession, median wages in the U.S. that have declined over the last decade despite increases in productivity, a doubling of personal debt as a result of those declining wages -- all are well-known data points cited by Pedrotty and others as reasons to reign in high finance's more bubble-creating instincts. The financial industry has become too big a part of the GDP, they say. And Wall Street ought to get back to doing what it was formed to do: raising money for the industries that actually produce things.

"What we've seen from congress is a good start," Pedrotty said, referring to the version of the financial-reform bill now sitting in the Senate. "But it's like putting a Band Aid on a gaping wound. You need to respond in scale here, and that's not something we've seen -- not yet."

One of the chief aims of the Thursday march on Wall Street -- and of the union's own efforts inside the Beltway these last few weeks -- is to lobby for an excise tax on trading, what some have called a "speculation tax" and others a "trader tax." Essentially, under the measure, the government would take a 25-basis-point cut of every transaction, whether in stocks, bonds or derivatives.

Hugely contentious, akin to Britain's stamp tax, the idea has been around for awhile, and has received qualified endorsement from a range of figures, including Buffett,

Blackstone

(BX) - Get Report

co-founder Peter Peterson and

Vanguard

founder John Bogle.

According to a variety of estimates, the tax could raise between $100 billion and $300 billion a year, money that could be used, supporters say, to pay for infrastructure improvements, fund job growth, and reduce the national debt.

Further, such a tax would help discourage the "short-term speculative behavior" that helped inflate the bubble to begin with, Pedrotty said.

A bill proposing such a tax is sitting in both the House and the Senate. (The House version even has a slogan for title. It's called the "Let Wall Street Pay for the Restoration of Main Street Act.") The White House has so far been noncommittal. "We've had discussions with the administration about this, but they haven't taken an official position," Pedrotty said.

The arguments against the tax are well known: that it would destroy liquidity, hurt retail investors, drive capital offshore. The counter-arguments in favor of the tax say it would "disproportionately be aimed at short-term trading strategies," Pedrotty said, and that the U.K. example proves that capital flight is unlikely. Britain's capital market has grown since the stamp tax was enacted, he added.

The tax has already sparked fearsome opposition on the part of Wall Street and certain segments of the investor class. Hedge funds, says Pedrotty, "aren't exactly cheering for it."

There was plenty of cheering, though, as the demonstrators marched past Broadway and Wall on Thursday afternoon, in earshot of the

New York Stock Exchange

. And what of the venerable bourse?

As it turns out, the NYSE -- as much a symbol of Wall Street as Wall Street is a metonymy for American finance -- is a union shop.

-- Written by Scott Eden in New York. The AP contributed to this report.

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Scott Eden has covered business -- both large and small -- for more than a decade. Prior to joining TheStreet.com, he worked as a features reporter for Dealmaker and Trader Monthly magazines. Before that, he wrote for the Chicago Reader, that city's weekly paper. Early in his career, he was a staff reporter at the Dow Jones News Service. His reporting has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and the Believer magazine, among other publications. He's also the author of Touchdown Jesus (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a nonfiction book about Notre Dame football fans and the business and politics of big-time college sports. He has degrees from Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis.