Union Banking and Progressive Ice Cream: Keith Mestrich and Ben & Jerry


A bank founded by a garment workers union, and a global ice cream company founded by a couple of hippies from Brooklyn. Keith Mestrich, President & CEO of Amalgamated Bank, talks about running a big bank with a social justice mission. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream talk about Bernie Sanders and progressive business principles - do they exist? Later in the show, Laura comments on the rise of automation - is it the end of human connection?


Laura Flanders: Often on this program we talk about evil big banks. Break up the big banks we say, embrace credit unions. Well, I'm not changing any of that but we are going to talk to somebody who's in charge of a big bank right now, it's the Amalgamated Bank but it's a little different and it's using its power in the banking world to make some progressive change. The CEO of the Amalgamated Bank for the last couple of year is our guest Keith Mestrich. Welcome to the program Keith. Glad to have you.

Keith Mestrich: Thanks, Laura, nice to be here.

Laura Flanders: Amalgamated, tell us its history. Founded in the 20s?

Keith Mestrich: It's a fascinating history, founded in 1923 by a visionary thinker named Sidney Hillman and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in New York City. Founded when banking was really the purview of the rich, much like it is today.

Laura Flanders: Why was it founded?

Keith Mestrich: It was founded really to be able to give immigrant garment workers, a million of them in New York City at the time, a place where they could actually conduct financial transactions. At that time a lot of banks charged working people to keep their money in the bank, we offered the first free savings accounts, and the bank really invented the first system of form remittances so that garment workers, who were here to find a better life, could bring their families back over here from abroad.


Laura Flanders: Jewish progressives born in Brooklyn, but famous in Vermont. No, I'm not talking about Bernie Sanders, but Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Ben and Jerry turned a gas station ice cream parlor into a global phenomenon in Bernie Sanders' home town of Burlington, Vermont. Since then they've modeled what a lot of people say a progressive and massively successful business can actually look like. And they have continued to be outspoken on all sorts of issues, so it is no surprise that they are going all out for Bernie Sanders for President. They’ve even made a Bernie ice cream. I am thrilled to welcome them back to the show: Jerry Greenfield, Ben Cohen, welcome to the program.

Ben Cohen: Good to be here, Laura.

Laura Flanders: Let's go back a little bit and talk about the two of you and then we’ll talk about Bernie and what he's meant for you. What his policies have meant for you and what brings you to this position. To give people a bit of background, Ben, tell us you grew up. How did you end up in Burlington making ice cream [...] briefly?

Ben Cohen: First I met Jerry in seventh grade gym class. We were to two slowest, fattest kids in the class. Then, I became a failure as a potter. Nobody would buy my pottery. Jerry became a failure as a med school applicant. He got rejected from every school he applied to. We ran into each other and we said we're both failures. What are we going to do? We decided to start and ice cream business.

Originally, we wanted to open it in a warm, rural college town cause we wanted to live in a rural college town. We discovered all the warm ones already had homemade ice cream parlors. We decided to throw out the criteria of warm and ended up in Burlington, Vermont.

Laura Flanders: You're really an inspiration to failures everywhere. [...]

Jerry Greenfield: We ended up in Burlington right at the time that Bernie was starting his political career first as Mayor of Burlington in the ‘80’s. [...] Bernie was running against the entrenched establishment political machine Democrat incumbent who had been there. Bernie ran, to everybody’s surprise, he won by ten votes and became Mayor. [...]  One of the early issues there was around development of the waterfront at Lake Champlain which, prior to Bernie coming there, the idea had been that it was going to be sold to developers. They were going to be having high-end condominiums and the public was essentially going to be shut out.

Ben Cohen:  Bernie came in as Mayor and started talking about this idea of public access that nobody in Burlington had ever heard of before. Essentially what he was saying was that the waterfront of Burlington belongs to all the people of Burlington. We shouldn’t allow it to become privatized and sold to these developers. He ended up fighting the developers all the way to the top court in the State and he won. Today, we have the most beautiful public waterfront in Burlington that's open to everybody.

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