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Too Big Not To Organize (cont’d)

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There’s a way, but is there a will?

The problem is that bank branches are difficult to organize. Although it might seem an unlikely comparison, the situation is analogous to that of another economic mover and shaker–Wal-Mart. Like the retail giant, large banks can easily shut down branches and move them down the road if workers vote to unionize.

In order to organize the banking industry, SEIU would have to make some sort of organizing agreement with Santander. But thus far, company officials have refused to even meet with UNI Global Union, which represents 237 trade unions and 3 million workers in the finance sector worldwide, to discuss ensuring free and fair union elections in the Boston-area branches of Sovereign Bank.

But Sovereign workers have more leverage against their bank than Wal-Mart workers do against their company. Boston City Councilman Felix Arroyo, a former SEIU political director, is currently working on a resolution that would threaten to move tens of millions of Boston city government money out of Sovereign Bank if the company doesn’t agree to allow workers to hold a free and fair union election. The workers have even won the support of powerful Boston area congressman Barney Frank, who vowed in July of this year to use whatever power he can as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee to force banks to allow elections.

Given that big banks faced a tidal wave of public outcry over bonuses last year and still did as they pleased, it’s important to remember that the workers have beaten the banks before. The post-bailout financial reform movement was in part launched when workers at Chicago-based Republic Windows and Doors occupied their plant in December 2008 to protest Bank of America’s role in closing their factory without notice.

“Among the many lessons of the Republic occupation was that in order to beat the banks you needed three things: a good case, political support, and workers willing to take bold action,” says Chris Townsend, of the United Electrical workers union, to which Republic workers belonged. “The banks came to the table when the entire world could see that the union was going to do whatever it took to win, pay whatever price, for as long as it would take.”

Former CWA staffer and labor journalist Steve Early believes unions have sabotaged some of their own campaigns because they suffer from what he terms “organizational attention deficit disorder.” “You can’t develop new forms of organizing with any real potential for overcoming corporate opposition…if you constantly flit from project to project,” Early says. “These efforts require a long-term commitment that few unions are willing to make, even when dealing with a strategic multinational target that’s not going away.”

So the crucial question is: Will SEIU be willing to pay whatever price necessary to organize bank workers?

In the post-Andy Stern-era of SEIU, the union is showing a new willingness to work with other unions and community groups. CWA organizers (which is not part of Change to Win, the breakaway labor federation Andy Stern spearheaded five years ago) say they were surprised to be invited this summer into the bank workers campaign by SEIU so early. (The campaign began this spring.)

But most promising is SEIU’s decision to allow foreign unionists to be a driving force behind an American organizing drive. The Boston bank workers campaign is still in its infancy, but Brazilian trade unionist delegations have already made two trips to Boston, in May and July of 2010, to encourage Sovereign workers. I accompanied Brazilians as they entered bank branches and asked employees to attend organizing meetings. “We are willing to make as many trips to Boston as they need to and do whatever it takes to help organize workers,” CONTRAF President Carlos Cordeiro says.

Ironically, the very same Latin American trade union movements that suffered as a result of pro-Cold War policies of the American labor movement are now coming to the rescue of the American labor movement. Securing free and fair union elections in U.S. banks will depend in large part on the ability of bank unions overseas to extract international enforceable organizing agreements from companies like Santander.

With the help of Santander employees already organized overseas, bank workers in Boston just might just be able to form a union–and suggest a way to revitalize a U.S. labor movement now barely present in the private sector. Lerner summarizes the challenge ahead: “We need to be committed to figuring out how we organize whole sectors. The starting point is to organize the banking sector, to…look at the most important part of the economy.”

Put simply, the banks are too big not to unionize.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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