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Working In These Times

Thursday, Sep 16, 2010, 12:13 pm

SEIU Helps Bank Workers Become Whistleblowers

BY Mike Elk

Union's new campaign part of larger effort to unionize banks

One of the best kept secrets of the financial reform bill passed in July is tough whistleblower laws to protect bank workers who expose shady lending, credit card and fee practices. But do U.S. bank workers actually know about the new protections? A new Service Employees union campaign aims to make sure they do.

SEIU is launching a campaign encouraging bank customers to do two things when at the bank, says SEIU Financial Director Stephen Lerner. "One:  do your normal banking. And then two, inform bank workers of their rights under the new whistleblower laws." The union is encouraging its members, community allies, and activists to print up these whistleblower fliers and give them to tellers and personal bankers anytime they're banking.

The fliers—which begins "YOU Can Stop the Next Global Financial Meltdown"—informs workers of the new laws protecting whisteblowers under the new financial regulation bill. Smart lobbying by SEIU and a number of other groups led to the inclusion of tough new whistleblower laws allowing workers to expose shady practices, such as making customers receive high-interest loans when they qualify for cheaper loans. (According to Ellen Harnick of the Center for Responsible Lending, "in 2006, 6 out of 10 subprime borrowers in 2006 qualified for a cheaper fixed rate loan." Workers had a direct incentive to provide such bad financial products)

"It's important that every bank employee knows they are on the front lines for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau"  Lerner says.
 

The Credit Card, Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act, signed into law last year, banned banks from automatically enrolling people into accounts with overdrafts fees, which make the bank industry $38 billion a year, according to the Financial Times. But many banks are pushing workers to get around that. Bank workers at Sovereign Bank, a subsidiary of the Spanish banking giant Grupo Santander, are now being forced to meet strict quotas for signing people up for accounts with high overdraft fees. The new whistleblower law gives workers protection in reporting this type of behavior.

SEIU Financial Director Stephen Lerner further singled out Santander in a recent op-ed for the Huffington Post. "For New Englanders, a good place to start would be Sovereign Bank, a subsidiary of the Spanish bank Santander. The Financial Times recently reported that Santander has emerged as the bank with the highest proportion of customer complaints in the UK, with a complaint coming in every minute during the first half of this year."

As I wrote previously for In These Times, SEIU is leading an international coalition attempting to organize bank workers at Sovereign. Santander is 75% unionized overseas and SEIU is using this international leverage of unionized bank workers to pressure Sandtender to allow bank workers to organize in the United States for the first time.

The union's new effort to educate workers about their whistleblower rights is part of the larger campaign to organize bank workers. When workers realize that they can speak out, they will begin to realize that have more of a role in the way banks operate and will begin to thinking about joining a union to express those rights.

The idea in getting bank customers to give the fliers to workers is to get community members involved and provide the vital support to understand bank practices. Ultimately, the effort could get community members involved in major bank organizing drives.

The SEIU fliers will also help identify union leaders in the various bank facilities. They direct workers to action.seiu.org/bankwatch, where workers wanting to speak out against unfair bank practices can enter contact information. Members of the union will then follow up with these bank workers and get interested workers involved in the union.

It's an interesting tool in what could prove to be one of the most dynamic organizing campaigns the labor movement has seen in a long time. Obviously, the cards are no panacea and the fight to organize bank workers in the United States will be a long and tough one. But it is one the labor movement must win if it is to reform capitalism's core: the banks.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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