Pissed off shareholders, homeowners, and taxpayers converge on Wells Fargo meeting

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2,000 protesters showed up to the April 24 Wells Fargo shareholder meeting
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY YAEL CHANOFF

Wells Fargo managed to hold its shareholder meeting April 24, but not without difficulty. A protest against the bank’s ongoing part in the foreclosure crisis, investments in the private prison industry, and record of tax dodging brought some 2,000 people to the West Coast Wells Fargo headquarters at 465 California St. for the meeting.

A broad coalition, including more than 180 Wells Fargo shareholders, as well as organized labor, students, immigrant rights advocates, and Occupy protesters, swarmed the building. Many entered the building, and others blocked its entrances and set up a stage on California, turning the block between Montgomery and Sansome into a combination alternative “stakeholders meeting” and block party.

Streets surrounding the headquarters were closed for more than four hours, as both protesters and some 200 police in riot gear stood their ground; there were 24 arrests, mostly for trespassing.

Participants hailed from across the country, from students from the University of Minnesota to steel workers from Redding, Penn. Demonstrators were explicitly and enthusiastically “non-violent.” One local organizer from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) announced, “This is a non-violent direct action,” to an eruption of cheers from the crowd, at a rally preceding the march.

Police say organizers stuck to their tactical intentions. “I think it was a successful event,” said Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a spokesperson for the SFPD. “They have followed through with their stated objective: to have a peaceful protest.”

The organizers were somewhat less successful in a stated objective to get a large number of discontent Wells Fargo shareholders into the meeting to ask tough questions. More than 180 attended a training to prepare for the meeting on the night of April 23, but less than 30 made it inside.

However, the meeting was cut short, and organizers claim that in barring a number of shareholders, Wells Fargo acted illegally and the result of votes from meeting may be invalid.

Many shareholders were particularly incensed about public subsidies that the company took advantage of in 2008. In an amendment to the tax code that lasted only three months before Congress revoked it, the IRS gave tax breaks to healthy banks that acquired banks that were faring more poorly; Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia during the three month window. As a result, the company received $17.96 billion in tax breaks between 2008 and 2012, significantly more than the cost of the Wachovia deal.

Protesters hoped to disrupt the meeting to demand that the bank pay more taxes. Wells Fargo announced record profits this year, as well as a $19.8 million pay package for CEO John Stumpf. Stumpf has earned $60 million in the past three years.

“If they were paying their taxes, we wouldn’t have to do this” said Al Haggett, a retired San 911 worker who trained dispatchers and police.

Ron Colbert, another shareholder and a worker for Sacramento's school district, also attempted to enter the meeting. “My sisters and brothers are suffering from foreclosure and they are pocketing our money instead of paying their taxes,” said Colbert.

“Tuition keeps going up every year. I have loans like you wouldn’t believe: $15,000, and it’s just my first year. But I pay my taxes, so why can’t they?” said Andrew Contstas, a psychology major at the University of Minnesota who traveled to San Francisco for the protest.

Determined to shut down the meeting, many groups of protesters entered the building at different times.

Around 10:30 am, about 75 were able to get in and sit down in the lobby, refusing to leave. “They said if we dispersed, they would let the shareholders in,” said SEIU Local 1021 organizer Gabriel Haaland, referring to the shareholders who came to protest and air their grievances. “They still didn’t. But they let shareholders in from either side.”

Many non-protester shareholders were able to enter through back entrances, escorted by police.

Workers from several unions who are currently locked in labor disputes, including janitors with SEIU Local 87 and AT&T technicians with local Communication Workers of America chapters, were also present at the protest. A stage set up in front of Wells Fargo turned California into an arena in which worker, student, homeowners, and immigrants told their stories.

Chris Drioane of CWA Local 9410 said that he is fed up after he worked 80-90 hours per week with no days off though the 2011 holiday season. “I worked from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day with no days off,” said Drioane.

The SFPD made 20 arrests, six for “chaining themselves to an object” and 14 for “some form of trespassing” after Wells Fargo asked them to make the arrests. Four were arrested by the Sheriff’s Department for interfering with an officer.

Ruth Schultz, a shareholder who was arrested inside the meeting, said that those who entered were able to speak. Several stood up and spoke individually before they were escorted out; afterward, the remaining protester-shareholders mic-checked the meeting and expressed their desire that Wells Fargo cease investment in private prisons, give principal reduction to all underwater homeowners, and pay “their fair share” of taxes. Police handcuffed them, and they were cited and released after spending 30 minutes in a room inside the Wells Fargo headquarters.

Schultz says the meeting lasted only 15 minutes after the group was detained, and was “ceremonial at best...They went on about their profits this year, how they’re sitting on the most capital they’ve ever had before.”

She says she was particularly frustrated from one statement made by CEO John Stumpf. “He said, ‘we’re proud of our mortgage business. In fact, I love our mortgage business.’”

A press releases from organizers explained that the protest was part of “99% Power, a national effort to mobilize well over 10,000 people, from all walks of life and representing the diversity of the 99%, to engage in nonviolent direct action at more than three dozen corporate shareholder meetings across the country.”

The national group plans to create similar chaos at a Bank of America shareholder meeting in Charlotte, NC May 6.

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