March 21: Rolling Taxpayer Anger at Great Recession Bailout Bonuses.

 

In March of 2009, politicians and citizens on both sides of the political aisle became irate after learning that Wilton-based financial giant AIG – which had just received more than $200 billion in taxpayer-funded federal bailouts after posting the largest single-quarter loss in U.S. corporate history – was planning to give nearly $220 million in cash bonuses, most to AIG executives. The company’s rationale for giving the bonuses — that it was contractually obligated to honor retention bonus commitments made long before the financial meltdown; that the payments were needed to keep the valued employees necessary to help the company recover from its financial crisis; and, that all its employees were “working very hard to pay back the government and help the US economy recover” — made sense to some people, while completely infuriating others. For those angry at the bonuses , the payments symbolically underscored the excesses and unfairness they associated with the financial industry mismanagement they felt surely lay behind the Great Recession.

While representatives in Congress debated the legality of federal intervention to stop the infamous bonuses, and even as AIG’s chief executive suggested anyone receiving over $100,000 should voluntarily give at least half of it back, a small group of angry protestors decided to make their own statement. On March 21, 2009, members of the liberal Connecticut Working Families Party organized a “Tour of the Rich and Infamous.” Dozens of protestors piled onto a chartered bus and were driven to the Fairfield County homes of a number of AIG’s top bonus-receiving executives. There, the small crowd — greatly outnumbered by the reporters and journalists that followed them — held up protest signs and shouted chants while individuals hand-delivered angry protest letters to the executives’ mailboxes (or, more accurately, to the private security guards who blocked protesters’ access to their homes). Afterwards, the bus tour went to the Wilton headquarters of AIG’s financial products division, where another ritual protest ensued.

While the AIG Connecticut “bus tour” was certainly the most visible organized protest against the company’s taxpayer-financed bonuses, it was far from the only expression of collective outrage. AIG employees received so many menacing letters and even death threats that company officials warned them to be prepared to call 911 if they suspected any danger.

Within three days of the “Tour of the Rich and Infamous,” public backlash had resulted in the resignation of one of AIG’s top vice-presidents, and 15 of the top 20 most highly-compensated AIG officials had voluntarily refused their bonus checks. The woke spoke — and were heard — today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Phil Wahba, “AIG Protestors Take Connecticut Bus Tour,” Reuters

Eric Gershon, “Driving it Home to AIG,Hartford Courant

John Christofferson, “Protestors Descend on Lavish AIG Exec Homes,” AP/NBC Chicago