Could Teller Organizing Help Halt Bank Abuses?

Sarah Jaffe November 22, 2013

A man in a robot costume protests the new video teller ATMs that Bank of America began rolling out this fall. (Sarah Jaffe)

Out­side of the Bank of Amer­i­ca branch at 95 Wall Street, a man in a robot cos­tume did the Robot dur­ing yes­ter­day’s lunch hour. He danced along to the chants of the pro­test­ers walk­ing in a cir­cle out­side of the branch. They were there to protest the new video teller ATMs that the com­pa­ny start­ed rolling out this fall, which the new 95 Wall Street branch has recent­ly installed.

As they sang, Out­sourc­ing ain’t the way, com­mu­ni­ty tellers are here to stay,” an employ­ee who’d been hov­er­ing in the lob­by with a tablet com­put­er on his arm joined sev­er­al more bankers in suits and a burly secu­ri­ty guard.

The group of 30 or so pro­test­ers was from the Com­mit­tee for Bet­ter Banks, a labor-com­mu­ni­ty coali­tion that includes the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN), Make the Road New York, New York Com­mu­ni­ties for Change (NYCC) and the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca union (CWA).

The committee’s aim, accord­ing to Brigid Fla­her­ty, orga­niz­ing direc­tor at ALIGN, is fight­ing to cre­ate a trans­par­ent and just bank­ing sys­tem by improv­ing the work­ing con­di­tions for employ­ees in finance.” Yes­ter­day, they were sup­port­ing Alex Shalom, a teller at the Bank of Amer­i­ca on New York’s 42nd Street and 3rd Avenue, as he attempt­ed to deliv­er a let­ter to the bank’s CEO ask­ing for a meet­ing to dis­cuss the bank’s plan to shift to video tellers.

When Shalom first heard about the new ATM with Teller Assist” machines, he did­n’t think much of it. New tech­nol­o­gy is a fact of life for most work­ers these days, and Shalom and his col­leagues are no exception.

But these ATMs are not just a tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion — they are using actu­al work­ers sta­tioned remote­ly at call cen­ters, who video-con­fer­ence with cus­tomers. When Shalom learned that it was actu­al­ly just anoth­er per­son being paid less to do the same job as me, not in our com­mu­ni­ty,” he got upset and decid­ed to try to orga­nize his cowork­ers around the issue.

He start­ed a peti­tion on Cowork​er​.org call­ing on the bank to stop the move to the new machines and keep well-paid jobs in the com­mu­ni­ties they serve, and he’s got the back­ing of his com­mu­ni­ty as he protests the out­sourc­ing of his job.

ALIGN’s Fla­her­ty, tells In These Times, I think it’s a very brave step for work­ers in Bank of Amer­i­ca and oth­er work­ers who sup­port them to say, We know what you’ve done to com­mu­ni­ties, we’ve seen how you real­ly put bur­dens on home­own­ers and we’ve seen how you put bur­dens on stu­dents. But we’re the ones that no one real­ly under­stands or has seen yet how you’ve put [bur­dens] on us. And today is the day that we’re going to stand up and fight back.’”

The new video teller ATMs were fea­tured in a glow­ing seg­ment on Mar­ket­place” with the bizarre title Your bank teller will live inside an ATM.” Of course, the teller does­n’t live” or even work inside the ATM — they’re based at a call cen­ter in Jack­sonville, Fla. Accord­ing to Indi­ra Celaya, the video teller that Mar­ket­place” reporter Mark Gar­ri­son spoke with through the ATM, cus­tomers have a hard time believ­ing that she’s real. I tell them I am a real per­son and you know, it’s very fun­ny and it’s an ice­break­er, I believe.” (In These Times attempt­ed to con­tact Celaya and did not get a reply.)

Based on what Shalom’s man­agers have told him, he has two wor­ries about the new sys­tem: That it will threat­en his own job, and that it will mean low-qual­i­ty jobs for his remote­ly locat­ed col­leagues. He says he’s been told that the video tellers will make the same amount as reg­u­lar tellers in the loca­tions where they’re based — which may be con­sid­er­ably less, he says, than the wages in some areas they are ser­vic­ing, such as Man­hat­tan. If I worked in my own [Brook­lyn] neigh­bor­hood — I actu­al­ly pass like ten Bank of Amer­i­c­as to get to work — I’d be get­ting paid some­thing like two or three dol­lars less.”

Besides prof­it­ing from low­er wages, the bank also can squeeze more work out of few­er peo­ple with the new remote teller sys­tem. Shalom points out, It allows them to have less peo­ple because you can have one teller ser­vic­ing mul­ti­ple branch­es at once, which is impos­si­ble for an in-per­son per­son.” A call cen­ter work­er will be free to take call after call from around the coun­try with­out leav­ing her desk. In oth­er words, the new tech­nol­o­gy will mean that few­er peo­ple do more work — a recipe for job cuts and lousy work­ing con­di­tions, which is what’s fuel­ing Shalom’s fears.

Gar­ri­son also notes that the new machines will change the way bank branch­es are orga­nized. By sav­ing space with the new machines, which take up just a bit more space than a reg­u­lar ATM, Bank of Amer­i­ca can open small­er branch­es in places like Man­hat­tan where real estate is at a pre­mi­um. And the real-life employ­ees at these new small branch­es, Gar­ri­son reports, will be there to boost the bank’s bot­tom line.” They’re there, in oth­er words, to upsell prod­ucts to the bank’s wealth­i­er cus­tomers — some­thing Shalom says that tellers are already pres­sured to do.

We have to refer cus­tomers from the win­dow, who are just doing a deposit or what­ev­er, over to the bankers. We have to get a cer­tain num­ber, the goal being one per hour. About 8 per­cent of cus­tomers,” he says.

Shalom is not a fan of this prac­tice: That just leads to peo­ple sug­gest­ing things that peo­ple don’t need. You’re try­ing to sell some­body like a fifth cred­it card just because you need to meet your goal, but they don’t need a fifth cred­it card. That’s a preda­to­ry practice.”

He hopes that if he and his col­leagues orga­nize, they’ll be able to stop those preda­to­ry prac­tices, and oth­ers besides. Brigid Fla­her­ty, orga­niz­ing direc­tor for ALIGN, tells In These Times, I think it’s a very brave step for work­ers in Bank of Amer­i­ca and oth­er work­ers who sup­port them to say, We know what you’ve done to com­mu­ni­ties, we’ve seen how you real­ly put bur­dens on home­own­ers and we’ve seen how you put bur­dens on stu­dents. But we’re the ones that no one real­ly under­stands or has seen yet how you’ve put [bur­dens] on us. And today is the day that we’re going to stand up and fight back.’ ”

Coun­tries where some of the same multi­na­tion­al mega­banks are union­ized pro­vide a mod­el of how work­ers’ col­lec­tive pow­er can not only improve their lot, but also curb bank­ing abus­es. Stephen Lern­er writes at Alter­Net (full dis­clo­sure: I com­mis­sioned and edit­ed this piece when I worked at Alter­Net) that the 438,000 Brazil­ian bank and finan­cial work­ers who are cov­ered by union con­tracts use their pow­er to win gains both polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic; includ­ing hold­ing big banks like Citibank and HSBC account­able for their actions. Sindi­ca­to dos Bancários a Finan­ciários de São Paulo, which is being hon­ored at NYC­C’s year-end gala on Decem­ber 3, has pushed for greater account­abil­i­ty at the banks and stronger pro­tec­tions for work­ers who might blow the whis­tle on shady bank practices.

Shalom and his col­leagues say they are not try­ing to form a union at the moment, but they do see the pow­er of col­lec­tive­ly tak­ing action — and are inspired by oth­er low-wage work­ers like those at McDon­ald’s and Wal­mart who have done the same. I think peo­ple need to know that tellers are just cashiers with ties on,” Shalom says, point­ing out that wide­spread anger at the banks often falls on the shoul­ders of tellers like him, who are work­ing for wages not much bet­ter than those of a retail or fast-food employ­ee, at a job with lit­tle poten­tial for advance­ment. He says his wages work out to about $26,000 a year for a full-time employ­ee — and that’s at the bet­ter-paid branch in Manhattan.

After his peti­tion hit the Inter­net, Shalom says, he was pulled into a meet­ing with a bank exec­u­tive. It was on a day when he had picked up extra hours at a branch not his usu­al, so when he was pulled aside he did­n’t know any­one he could ask for sup­port. Rather than being dis­ci­plined or fired, though, he says the exec­u­tive sim­ply argued that he should­n’t be opposed to the video tellers. Shalom says he argued in return that teller jobs are one of the bet­ter-paid cashier or sales posi­tion that one can have. Then, in what Shalom calls his favorite” moment in the argu­ment, the exec­u­tive replied, Oh, it’s arguable whether a teller job is livable.”

So if our job isn’t liv­able, how are these peo­ple from Delaware get­ting liv­able jobs?” Shalom asks.

The orga­ni­za­tions that make up the coali­tion have a long track record of tar­get­ing the banks and of orga­niz­ing work­ers, so it seems nat­ur­al that even­tu­al­ly they’d try to bring togeth­er these two issues. CWA also has a his­to­ry of orga­niz­ing call-cen­ter work­ers — and, Fla­her­ty notes, doc­u­ment­ing hor­ri­ble speed-up con­di­tions for the work­ers in those cen­ters. But, she says, It real­ly con­nects beyond just the orga­ni­za­tions that make up the com­mit­tee to this move­ment that we’re see­ing that has also inspired the work­ers that we have been orga­niz­ing — many times when we have meet­ings they ref­er­ence things like the fast food strike, they ref­er­ence things like Wal-Mart. This is real­ly, to us con­tin­u­ing that move­ment to improve work­ing con­di­tions for those who are mak­ing our econ­o­my run and who are real­ly the sort of back­bone of these indus­tries but are real­ly con­sid­ered dis­pens­able by the largest cor­po­ra­tions in the world.”

Like McDon­ald’s and Wal-Mart, Bank of Amer­i­ca is a house­hold name and some­thing of an easy tar­get. In addi­tion to bil­lions in fed­er­al bailout dol­lars, the bank has received mil­lions more in sub­si­dies from New York to remain, build, and cre­ate jobs in the state. Accord­ing to watch­dog group Good Jobs New York, the bank received $42 mil­lion in Lib­er­ty Bonds and oth­er sub­si­dies from the city and state in 2004, and a spe­cial lease arrange­ment with the Empire State Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion worth up to $40 mil­lion for an office build­ing in Mid­town anchored by the bank, in exchange for an agree­ment to cre­ate jobs that runs until 2028. And before it was tak­en over by Bank of Amer­i­ca — in a $50 bil­lion deal (with $20 bil­lion in Trea­sury sup­port and bil­lions more in back­stop­ping”) that Hei­di Moore at the Wall Street Jour­nal called a deal from hell” — the invest­ment bank Mer­rill Lynch had received $28 mil­lion from the city in order to pre­serve its 9,000 jobs and cre­ate 2000 new ones by June 2012.

Orga­niz­ers wor­ry that Bank of Amer­i­ca may now be try­ing to have its cake and eat it too, by keep­ing space in New York but ship­ping the jobs out of state,.

Fla­her­ty points out that Bank of Amer­i­ca is not the only bank that’s look­ing for ways to squeeze more prof­its out of its work­ers. Over sev­er­al months, as the coali­tion spoke with bank work­ers, she says, We were see­ing what was hap­pen­ing in the banks was real­ly mir­ror­ing the decline in work­ing con­di­tions that were hap­pen­ing in a lot of oth­er indus­tries. We’ve seen the rise in CEO pay, and yet they keep say­ing there’s this cri­sis and they have to keep cut­ting jobs, mov­ing jobs out, but that’s just not the actu­al real­i­ty. They have the mon­ey, they’re just real­ly try­ing to cut work­ers out of the equation.”

Bank of Amer­i­ca’s CEO, Bri­an Moyni­han, the tar­get of Shalom’s let­ter, made $12 mil­lion in salary, stock awards, and oth­er com­pen­sa­tion in 2012a 70 per­cent jump from the pre­vi­ous year.

When Shalom tried to deliv­er his let­ter inside the bank branch, he was met at the door by a secu­ri­ty guard, who stepped out­side into the cold to speak with him, telling him that unless he was work­ing at the moment or need­ed to use the ATM, he could not come inside. The guard did promise to deliv­er the let­ter to CEO Moynihan.

For now, though, Shalom has a mes­sage for oth­er bank employ­ees who, like him, have a prob­lem with the way their employ­er does busi­ness: I suc­cess­ful­ly spoke out against a bad bank prac­tice, and I haven’t been fired or dis­ci­plined. I hope that it inspires oth­er work­ers that they can and should do the same with­out fear of retribution.”

Full dis­clo­sure: CWA is a web­site spon­sor of In These Times.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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