Last week, the AFL-CIO commenced a major new attack on the nation's largest banks and to push for a new "transaction tax" to raise money for a national jobs program. The labor federation's "Call to Action on Jobs" Campaign, which formally began on March 15th, is expected to target the nation's six largest financial institutions.

AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka claims that the campaign will send a message to the banks: “Stop refusing to pay your fair share to restore the jobs you destroyed, stop fighting financial reform and start lending to your communities, small businesses and others starved for credit.” Demonstrations kicked off last week and may reach 200 locations. Flyers will urge observers to "Tell the banks to PAY UP!"

The campaign is not limited to painting financial institutions in a negative light. Through the participation of advocacy group Americans for Financial Reform (AFR), the campaign will push Congress to pass a set of "financial speculation taxes" which would place a tax on certain securities transactions. The campaign speculates that this tax would raise over $100 billion per year.

The AFL-CIO claims that its partnership with AFR is not about labor organizing but instead is about “holding banks accountable” and pushing for financial reform. However, a look below the surface reveals AFR’s extensive ties to organized labor and other anti-business groups. Stephen Abrecht, the current director of the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) pension funds, is a member of AFR's Executive Committee. AFR's Steering Committee includes representatives from MoveOn, AFL-CIO, and USAction--a group that was instrumental in the formation of Health Care for America Now (HCAN).

HCAN was a central participant along with SEIU in a major demonstration recently against the insurance industry in Washington. HCAN and SEIU also were heavily involved in the effort to disrupt citizen protests at Congressional town hall meetings last summer. (HCAN circulated instructions on how to confront and disrupt those who tried to speak out at town hall meetings. The group’s memo was circulated just two days before Missouri Democrat Russ Carnahan's town hall meeting, during which protestor Kenneth Gladney was assaulted by SEIU members.) In addition, Khalid Pitts, one of USAction's board members, is SEIU's director for political accountability. Tax records reveal that SEIU has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to USAction in recent years.

We observed in this space several months ago that the current economic climate provided organized labor with ideal cover to begin organizing America's largest banks, a view shared by others who are monitoring the unions' progress. Whether the AFL-CIO's campaign is an indication that big labor is taking this effort to the next level, or simply trying to portray itself as a relevant player in the national debate around issues like “corporate accountability,” remains to be seen. But the participation and assistance of grassroots NGO's and other anti-corporate organizations suggests that campaign events may become more aggressive in nature. By escalating hostilities and more aggressively lobbying for financial reforms adverse to the business interests of private financial institutions, unions may be hoping to increase outside pressures on the banks and render them less resistant to attempts to organize their employees.

In this regard, SEIU announced plans to pressure the Maryland state legislature to move the state’s money out of “big Wall Street banks.” The union has already had some success with this pressure strategy, as it claimed credit for convincing the Los Angeles City Council to adopt a similar resolution last month. Whether the AFL-CIO is acting in league with SEIU, or competing against it -- both for national attention and for new union members -- most financial services institutions should be aware by now that they are directly in the crosshairs of several major union corporate campaigns. We recommended in December that the banking industry prepare for these attacks by addressing workplace concerns and potentially controversial business practices, and by preparing a strategic public relations response. The AFL-CIO's new push suggests that time may be running out to take these steps effectively.

An employer that waits until a union organizing campaign has commenced to make major workplace changes risks violating federal labor laws. Likewise, waiting until a corporate campaign has fully materialized before taking strategic action could place the employer in a disadvantageous, reactionary posture. As union attacks on the financial services industry build toward a crescendo, banks that have not formed a comprehensive strategy for addressing these new challenges should wait no longer.