WASHINGTON -- Last fall, the Occupy Wall Street movement ignited a national conversation on income inequality, corporate ties to conservative legislation and the culpability of banks in the foreclosure crisis. Now, a broad coalition of unions and progressive organizations is launching a massive, coordinated wave of protests aimed at the country's biggest brand names and Fortune 500 companies.
Calling this new phase 99 Percent Power, organizers tell The Huffington Post that they have planned more than 200 actions over the next few months in cities nationwide. Tuesday, supporters are gathering in San Francisco to protest Wells Fargo's shareholder meeting. On Wednesday, they are targeting General Electric's shareholder meeting in Detroit.
Melissa A. Engels-Lewis, 36, is going to the Detroit protest with Wisconsin Jobs Now. "I'm very angry," she said.
She watched her hometown of Wausau, Wis., collapse economically over the past several years. Her uncle lost a factory job two years ago and hasn't found steady work since. Her brother lost his factory job, too. He now drives a cab. Her mother-in-law recently was laid off from the paper mill where she had worked for more than two decades.
Engels-Lewis and her husband, Joel, work as landscapers and attend college. She said they live paycheck to paycheck and have subsidized health care to take care of their three daughters -- 14-year-old Shawna, 12-year-old Haley, and 2-year-old Carra. "It's a constant worry," she said. "We're always afraid that we could get our hours cut at work."
She and her husband demonstrated alongside Occupy D.C. in December.
As Wisconsin slashed its state budget for education and other necessities, Engels-Lewis said, she discovered that General Electric paid no taxes. "I don't understand how a corporation that makes so much money can not pay taxes," Engels-Lewis said. "I don't understand for the life of me why these people who not only don't pay taxes but get so much in kickbacks. I think it's ridiculous. I think it's unfair."
The New York Times reported the company claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion in 2010.
"We understand the amount of economic pain and anxiety people continue to feel in today’s climate," General Electric director of media relations Andrew Williams wrote in a statement to HuffPost concerning the upcoming demonstration. "We agree that there needs to be more fairness in our economy, and we’re focused on doing our part by investing in putting people back to work around the country, while laying the foundation for a more innovative, healthy future for our company."
Williams insisted that GE has paid its share of taxes:
"GE paid $1 billion in federal, state and local taxes in the U.S. for 2010. GE’s tax rate for 2010 was low because we lost $32 billion in our financial business during the global financial crisis. That tax rate increased to 29% in 2011 as our financial business has recovered.
The U.S. tax system is complex, out-of-date and uncompetitive. GE supports comprehensive tax reform to create a simpler, more efficient tax system that ensures everyone pays their fair share, including GE. To that end, we favor closing loopholes and making the tax system more efficient.
Those loopholes were part of the direct-action trainings organized earlier this month by a coalition of unions and progressives like MoveOn and Rebuild the Dream. Many of the same groups are participating in the shareholder protests. The trainings melded modern economic analysis, personal storytelling, and protest role-playing along with strategizing.
"People got a lot out of the trainings," said Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice, to HuffPost. "We found huge, huge interest in the shareholder meetings -- understanding this is the moment that we have to really bring our demands forward directly to corporate power."
According to a schedule provided to Huffington Post, demonstrations are planned for shareholder meetings with Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, 3M, Verizon, Pepco, Amazon, Sallie Mae, Exxon Mobile, Chevron, Comcast, Target and Walmart, among others.
Tomorrow, organizers are hitting Wells Fargo's shareholder meeting. Rebecca Tarbotton, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, said they expect 2,000 demonstrators including 100 clergy. They plan on circling the building where the meeting is set to take place, "non-violent blockades," sit-ins inside the building, as well as placing activists inside the shareholder meeting.
The National People's Action and other groups already met with Wells Fargo in Iowa to air grievances over the bank's investment in private prisons, its role in the foreclosure crisis and paying its fair share of taxes. Unhappy with the bank's response, the activists wrote a letter in mid-April telling the executive that they planned on attending the shareholder's meeting.
Ancel Martinez, a Wells Fargo spokesman, told HuffPost that the bank has "conducted more than 716,000 mortgage modifications" and that the Wells Fargo Advantage Fund includes only a small holding in GEO Group, a private-prison company. Martinez added that the bank pays its share of taxes and is a "responsible corporate citizen."
In the April 18 letter to Wells Fargo, the activists wrote, "Your current path is unsustainable, and is leading America deeper into debt, job and housing loss, economic inequality, and racial injustice." The activists also urged the bank to reduce principal for underwater homeowners.
Ten activists were arrested Monday afternoon during direct-action street protest at a Wells Fargo office in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.
The message has gotten to new activists.
Veronica Miranda, 32, who has worked in insurance sales, attended one of the 99 Percent Spring trainings in Wichita, Kan. She is planning on flying to San Francisco to attend the Wells Fargo protest. "I wanted to do more than sit back and let stuff happen," she tells HuffPost.
In Culver City, Calif., Marco Galindo, 65, attended a direct-action training session. He, too, plans on joining the Wells Fargo demonstration. Like Engels-Lewis, he is mystified by corporate behavior in the midst of the recession. "It's important … to learn more about what exactly a big corporation -- how do they function? How can they get away?"
It's not just demonstrators who are feeling the moment. It's actual shareholders, too. Last week Citigroup shareholders overwhelmingly rejected the compensation package for its CEO during a meeting in Dallas.
Groups that may have done separate actions are now coordinating with other groups -- adopting the big-tent Occupy approach. The successes of joining forces is not lost on 99 Percent Power's organizers.
"I think part of this opportunity is connecting the issues together," Tarbotton said.
Gupta agreed. "We know we can do more if we're doing this together," she said. "It can step up the game significantly."