The People Confront The Fed – And Have An Impact

The Center for Popular Democracy’s Federal Reserve campaign had an incredible week.

Last Monday evening, we publicly launched our national coalition of 20 community-based organizations, labor unions, and policy shops; by Friday afternoon, we had met with Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, been featured in the country’s most influential papers, and – amazingly – seen that the Federal Reserve is already changing its policies in response to our campaign.

The week started when the New York Times published an exclusive announcing that “a coalition of community groups and labor unions wants the Federal Reserve to change the way some Fed officials are appointed, criticizing the existing process as secretive, undemocratic, and dominated by banks and other large corporations.” The powerful, conservative presidents of the Dallas and Philadelphia Fed branches are retiring next year, so we partnered with broad coalitions in those cities to release public letters calling for transparent and public processes for selecting their replacements.

Our effort is called “Fed Up: The National Campaign for a Stronger Economy.” Check out our new website and support our effort with the hashtag #WhatRecovery.

On Friday morning, we held a press conference in front of the Fed’s imposing headquarters. Jean-Andre Sassine of New York Communities for Change and Amador Bernardo of Make the Road New York described their struggles to find full-time work and how high unemployment rates undercut their ability to ask for higher wages. Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute explained how the Fed could facilitate higher wages and less racial inequality by keeping interest rates low (you should read EPI’s full explanations here and here). Reverend Rufus Runnels of Communities Creating Opportunity in Kansas City gave a stirring call to action and, as Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal reported, Kati Sipp of Pennsylvania Working Families said that if Philly President Plosser really believes we are reaching full employment, he clearly hasn’t visited many neighborhoods in his own city.

Once the press conference was over, 29 workers, organizers, policy advocates, economists, and faith leaders walked into the Fed’s inner sanctum: the palatial board room where Fed officials make the macroeconomic policy decisions that affect every person in this country.

We were welcomed by four of the Fed’s five sitting Governors: Chair Janet Yellen, Vice Chair Stanley Fischer, and Governors Lael Brainard and Jerome Powell. For one hour, they listened to our stories of what life is like in the real economy – not the reality of statistics and economic theory, but of personal hope and struggle and perseverance in the face of tremendous obstacles.

The Governors heard Kendra Brooks of Action United in Philadelphia describe her long spell of unemployment after working as a non-profit manager for 15 years and the damage it did to her daughter’s hopes for a college education. They heard Reginald Rounds of Ferguson, Missouri (an activist with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment) explain how the tremendous racial inequities in his city have led to widespread hopelessness and despair and how, despite his extensive education and training in green technology, he has never been able to find steady, good work. They heard Reverend David Carter of Kansas People’s Action offer a powerful critique of the twin evils of structural racism and economic inequality. And they were visibly moved when CeeCee Butler of Our DC said that she had just lost her low-wage job at McDonalds three days earlier because she had been sick, had missed work, and was fired.

As the AP reported, we then delivered to Chair Yellen a petition signed by nearly 10,000 supporters of Action for the Common Good and the Working Families Party, asking her to keep interest rates low until we’ve reached genuine full employment. As The Washington Post reported, we also presented Chair Yellen and her colleagues a six-point agenda for strengthening the economy and reforming the governance of the Fed, which you can read here.

Our first three priorities were about economic policy: Anthony Newby of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change in Minneapolis asked the Fed to target rising wages and a narrower gap between black and white unemployment when it sets interest rates; CPD’s own Amy Carroll described how the Fed could invest directly in city and state bonds in order to support public infrastructure and good jobs and reduce Wall Street’s power over our government; and Ed Donaldson from the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment asked the Fed to conduct more research into the benefits of raising the minimum wage and reducing inequality and asked the Fed to reexamine its 2 percent inflation target.

Our next three priorities called for reforms to the Fed’s governance: CeeCee Butler asked that Fed officials meet with working families and community organizations as often as they meet with corporate and financial executives; Lenore Palladino of Demos called on Chair Yellen to appoint genuine community and labor representatives to the Fed’s regional governance boards this December; and Connie Parades of the Texas Organizing Project asked the Fed to establish a genuinely transparent and public process for replacing Presidents Fisher and Plosser this spring and selecting presidents for the other 10 banks in late 2015.

Chair Yellen and her colleagues ended the meeting by expressing their gratitude for our willingness to travel to meet with them and tell our stories. And, of course, we promised to stay in touch to follow up on the ambitious reform agenda that we had laid out.

Amazingly, our campaign is already yielding real results. On Thursday, for the first time, Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher announced the precise date of his retirement – something that we had specifically called on him to do in our open letters in the New York Times three days earlier. And, on Friday, the Philadelphia Fed released the name of the search firm it was using to conduct the search for President Plosser’s replacement – again, in response to our specific critique in Monday’s letter – and set up an email address to receive comments from the public about the process.

It was an amazing week, and we benefited from the support of all of our coalition’s members, including the AFL-CIO, Center for Community Change, Campaign for America’s Future, and the National Employment Law Project.

Last week proved two powerful truths about the progressive movement. First, that despite the jargon and the opacity that normally surrounds economics (and monetary policy in particular), working families understand the stakes of these debates as well as anyone. Low-wage workers can sit down at a table with some of the most powerful policymakers in the world and make a genuine contribution to their understanding of how our economy works.

And, second, this week showed the power of nationwide community organizing: by bringing together three dozen leaders from around the country, we’ve already begun to change the national debate about monetary policy and the governance of the Federal Reserve.

Over the coming year, pressure will grow for the Fed to prematurely end the recovery by raising interest rates. And crucial governance decisions will be made in all 12 regional banks.

With your support, we’ll be there every step of the way.

Ady Barkan is a staff attorney at the Center for Popular Democracy. Click here to see images from the D.C. action at the Federal Reserve.

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