On The SEIU Buyout Bus

Times Square is ground zero of private equity’s conquest of corporate America, and Andrew McDonald’s goal is to explain that to as many people as he can.

On Wednesday, McDonald, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, led a tour of the area to highlight the number of household company names owned by buyout shops. It was the first of what he hopes will be a full-fledged campaign of events to educate the public and union workers about the “secretive industry” known as private equity.

The union already launched a Web site, behindthebuyouts.com, aimed at demystifying the buyout business.

Roughly 30 people showed up, including members of ACORN, a community organization of low- and moderate-income families, and tomato pickers who came from Florida.

The tour started around noon, with McDonald manning the microphone on the top of a double-decker, open-air bus.

“Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Blackstone, TPG, or KKR,” McDonald said, getting one or two hands. “We don’t know them, but they own companies that employ 500,000 workers.”

The goal behind SEIU’s campaign, he went on, is to urge private equity firms to invest some of their profits in issues that are important to workers, like New York City’s affordable housing crisis. If J.C. Flowers & Co., Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase acquire student loan provider Sallie Mae, surely some of the windfall could be used to reduce repayments for low-income graduates, he suggested.

McDonald was nothing if not engaging as he pressed the case, and sounded genuine when he said he wanted to be fair to private equity firms. But he couldn’t help himself.

“Burger King was bought in 2003 and [the buyout firms] doubled their investment in three years,” he said. “The burgers taste the same, and the fries still aren’t as good as McDonald’s. Guess what else is the same? The workers still make minimum wage.”

Calling 42nd Street “Buyout Boulevard,” he pointed to AMC Theatres, Lids, a Hilton Hotel and recounted how Blackstone spent $4.75 billion to buy Madame Tussauds.

“They have a wax statue of Jennifer Lopez, and her cheeks turn red if you whisper in her ears,” he said. “You know what else would make Jennifer turn red? The profits they made on that deal.”

His attempt at objectivity failed altogether when he let loose with, “Here we are — Murder’s Row,” as the bus traveled south on Broadway, passing Sbarro, Travelex, Dale & Thomas Popcorn and Tasti-D-Lite, all of which are owned by buyout shops.