Lessons From the One Percent: What We Learned at the CME Group Annual Meeting

Last week, I joined a group of about 60 other 99 percent CME Group shareholders to attend the company's annual meeting. Our mission? To share personal stories of how corporate welfare has devastated our families and communities, and to demand that CME Group give back its over $77-million-per-year tax break that is bankrupting our state. (A demand repeated by thousands of other taxpayers over the course of a full day of protests.)

CME Group is one of the four most powerful corporations in the world, and their annual meeting is usually a meeting of, by, and for the one percent. The millionaire executives, board members and handful of wealthy finance industry shareholders in attendance are not accustomed to having members of the 99 percent attending the meeting, and especially not to having 99 percenters speaking truth to power in their presence. And they made their discomfort known.

The CME Group annual meeting is about as close to the belly of the one percent beast as any of us 99 percent shareholders are ever likely to come. And because the meeting was held in a small auditorium in which we made up about half of the audience, it really was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get up close and personal with the one percent.

We went in to deliver a message, but we also ended up learning quite a lot from the experience, such as:

1. The one percent will go to great lengths to distort the truth. Before the official business of the meeting commenced, CME Group Chairman Terry Duffy took the unusual step of addressing the issue of state tax breaks -- likely because we had spent the entire morning calling attention to the issue, with more marches and rallies to come. Duffy took pains to describe the tax break as a "tax change," a not entirely accurate turn of phrase which did not fool any of us.

Throughout the meeting, Duffy kept insisting that the company "pays all of the taxes it is legally required to," glossing over the fact that it lobbied extensively to change the tax laws in its favor. And although Duffy made repeated claims that the tax breaks kept the company "competitive," he failed to mention that prior to receiving the tax breaks, his corporation was one of the most profitable in the state and dominated the futures industry -- so it can hardly be described as suffering from any kind of competitive disadvantage.

2. The one percent really can be as callous and rude as their policies would suggest. By now we're familiar with just how arrogant Wall Street bankers can be (as these humorous and horrific quotes overheard on the Goldman Sachs elevator remind us). At the CME Group meeting we learned that this attitude is also pervasive on Chicago's Wall Street. When one shareholder -- a veteran who served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan -- stood up to question whether the highly profitable company was skirting its patriotic duty by not paying its fair share in taxes, Duffy cut him off, saying that his concerns weren't relevant to the business of the company. Other members of our group countered that he was a veteran and should be allowed to speak, only to hear several of the one percent shareholders respond loudly, "Who cares?"

Later, when a family farmer stood up to speak, I heard the pair of one percent shareholders sitting behind me mock him, saying sarcastically, "'Oooh, I'm a farmer, I grow apples' -- so what?" When I reminded them that CME Group's entire business was founded on the hard work of farmers, they rolled their eyes and laughed, making it plain how very comfortable they were with biting the 99 percent hands that quite literally feed them.

3. The one percent is scared of the 99 percent. CME Group knew that members of the 99 percent would be attending the meeting, and they responded with an aggressive display of security -- or perhaps I should say insecurity. Members of our group were forced to wear stamps on our hands identifying us, and a few of us were even pulled aside by security guards who knew our names and asked us if we planned on disrupting the meeting. In the meeting room, security guards made a ring around the perimeter, and positioned themselves directly in front of those of us they identified as "leaders."

As disturbing as it was to see a publicly owned company go out of its way to keep shareholders from exercising their right to weigh in on how the company does business, it made me smile to think that one of the most powerful companies in the world considers a group consisting largely of such menacing folks as seniors, clergy members, nursing home employees and the unemployed to be a serious threat. Which leads me to my final point...

4. The one percent knows that things are changing -- and not in their favor. We attended the meeting to make the one percent board members, executives and shareholders of CME Group come face to face with how corporate welfare and income inequality causes our families and communities to suffer. If we didn't have the power to actually create a more equitable and just society, the one percent at the meeting would have simply ignored us. The fact is, however, that the sixty of us attending the meeting -- and the thousands of others that rallied outside of the meeting and at the People's Shareholder Meeting a few blocks away -- are part of a movement that is growing. And as we continue to grow, we're rattling the one percent to its core.