WASHINGTON -(Dow Jones)- A rowdy group of about 200 union protesters shut down a Mortgage Bankers Association conference for about 10 minutes Wednesday, taking over the stage to protest against homebuilder PulteGroup Inc. (PHM) before leaving peacefully.
The protest led to some head-scratching among attendees, who wondered why a mortgage-banking conference was targeted. The protest appeared to be triggered by the presence of Debra Still, chief executive of Pulte's mortgage unit and chairman of the mortgage bankers' newly created council on residential mortgage servicing issues.
Unions have been pressing Congress to assess how Pulte spent about $900 million in government tax breaks meant to help spur job creation and avoid layoffs.
The Laborers' International Union of North America, the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and the AFL-CIO organized the protest, union members said. They say Pulte has laid off workers, and question whether the Michigan-based company has created jobs. The labor groups are also upset that Pulte uses contractors that don't hire unionized workers.
Chanting "where are the jobs?," the protesters unfurled a banner across the stage, which said "PULTE: WHERE IS THE $900 MILLION?"
Pulte spokesman Jim Zeumer said the company typically uses contractors that are "small, independent companies that are the engine of our economy."
"Union comments and protests are merely the latest publicity stunt in their years-long 'corporate campaign' against Pulte Homes, other large home builders and the homebuilding industry as a whole," Zeumer said in an emailed statement. "At the heart of the issue is the unions' need to increase membership."
After the protesters left the room, John Courson, the MBA's chief executive, apologized to the audience and acknowledged "a lot of concern, a lot of pain" over the housing-market bust. But he said the point of Wednesday's conference is to help understand how to improve the broken mortgage system.
Tom Deutsch, the director of the American Securitization Forum, then tried to break the ice before a panel discussion began.
"For the record, I don't know where the $900 million is," he said, underscoring the confusion of most bankers over the precise point of the disruption.
A spokesman for the Mortgage Bankers Group added that "it is unfortunate that they chose this venue to make their statement. The outcome of this summit is to find ways to help borrowers and ultimately create jobs."
Pulte spokesman Zeumer said the company realized a $917 million tax benefit in 2009 due to the 2008 economic stimulus law, which changed tax laws to extended the carryback period of net operating losses.
"In 2010, PulteGroup invested more than $1 billion in new land and development to support its ongoing operations," he said. "We continue to invest in the business to capitalize on market opportunities as they develop."
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