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Too Big Not To Organize

An international coalition of unions, led by SEIU, tries to unionize capitalism’s core: the banks.

Mike Elk

BOSTON – Through the blare of screech­ing feed­back from portable trans­la­tion head­sets and micro­phones, union­ized bank work­ers from Brazil, Eng­land, Chile, Ger­many, and Uruguay are encour­ag­ing Amer­i­can work­ers to under­take an unprece­dent­ed cam­paign against a com­mon ene­my: Grupo San­tander, the glob­al bank­ing giant which last year took con­trol of Sov­er­eign Bank.

The largest bank in the Euro-zone, where it is based, San­tander is the world’s eighth largest bank­ing com­pa­ny by mar­ket cap­i­tal­iza­tion. While the com­pa­ny is very good at gen­er­at­ing prof­its around the world (it’s the world’s fourth largest bank by prof­its), this inter­na­tion­al meet­ing is focus­ing on some­thing else: how the bank’s new U.S. branch­es might become as union­ized as branch­es in Europe and Latin America. 

San­tander bank branch­es are on aver­age 75-per­cent union­ized out­side the Unit­ed States, accord­ing to UNI Glob­al Union Finance Direc­tor Oliv­er Roethig because most oth­er indus­tri­al­ized nations have union­ized bank­ing sec­tors. In the Unit­ed States, how­ev­er, less than 1 per­cent of all front-office bank work­ers are orga­nized. In fact, the union­ized jan­i­tors work­ing for con­trac­tors that clean Sov­er­eign Bank’s head­quar­ters in Boston, Mass., often make more than the bank tellers and per­son­al bankers, whose aver­age wage is $10-$12 dol­lars per hour, despite indi­vid­u­al­ly pro­duc­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in prof­its for the bank each year. 

But the finan­cial sec­tor, at the cen­ter of the U.S. econ­o­my, has nev­er been union­ized. The inter­na­tion­al work­ers and local lead­ers of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (CWA) gath­ered in July to use the clout of glob­al union fed­er­a­tions like the UNI Glob­al Union to give labor a foothold in Santander’s Sov­er­eign oper­a­tions, and poten­tial­ly orga­nize the indus­try from there. If San­tander employ­ees are heav­i­ly union­ized over­seas, and cor­po­rate prof­its are so robust, then why shouldn’t Amer­i­can work­ers also join a union?

Bank reform from the inside

San­tander has already respond­ed to the orga­niz­ing cam­paign, labor activists say, fir­ing three Boston Sov­er­eign work­ers in June for orga­niz­ing activ­i­ties – Steve Crow­ley, Jan­ice DeJusi and Gary Rozenas. Crow­ley, who had worked at Sov­er­eign for 30 years, was hon­ored by the bank this spring for being a top sell­er, but was fired a week after sign­ing a let­ter about office prob­lems fol­low­ing Santander’s acqui­si­tion of the bank. DeJusi and Rozenas were fired after talk­ing to col­leagues about form­ing a union, accord­ing to Andy Kerr of CWA.

San­tander has denied dis­crim­i­nat­ing against employ­ees for union activ­i­ty, say­ing Sov­er­eign Bank adheres to all U.S. labor laws. A Sov­er­eign spokesper­son did not respond to requests for com­ment on union-bust­ing allegations.

When San­tander acquired Sov­er­eign, it imme­di­ate­ly laid off 23 per­cent of its new subsidiary’s work­ers. The com­pa­ny cut pay, slashed hours and dou­bled the cost of health­care for work­ers. Sov­er­eign work­ers knew they had to do some­thing, so they approached SEIU last spring to help them organize.

But why would SEIU, which has risen to promi­nence dur­ing the last 25 years in part by orga­niz­ing jan­i­tors, be inter­est­ed in orga­niz­ing bank workers? 

Well, it start­ed out in the 1980s; we would orga­nize a build­ing [where jan­i­tors worked]… and find out that the man­age­ment firm that owned the build­ing was real­ly owned by a pen­sion fund, which was owned by an invest­ment firm, which was ulti­mate­ly owned by a bank,” says Stephen Lern­er, the brain­child of SEIU’s Jus­tice for Jan­i­tors cam­paign and now direc­tor of SEIU’s Bank­ing and Finance Cam­paign. This began a thir­ty-year process in which we began to dis­cov­er how much pow­er the big banks have.” 

The the­o­ry is that if work­ers gain some con­trol over the banks through the pow­er of unions and the abil­i­ty to strike, they could have a choke­hold on one of the economy’s key sec­tors. Our mem­bers are fac­ing lay­offs as a result of the eco­nom­ic cri­sis caused by the banks,” says Lern­er. They are scream­ing out to do some­thing against the banks…scamming them with out­ra­geous bank fees and sub-prime loans.” 

The large cor­po­ra­tions at the cen­ter of the sub­prime mort­gage melt­down, such as Coun­try­wide, often based pay for per­son­al bankers on sell­ing risky prod­ucts. The more mon­ey I sold you and the high­er the rate, the more mon­ey I made,” said Don­na Feen­er, a for­mer Bank of Amer­i­ca employ­ee who worked in the company’s cred­it card bal­ance trans­fer depart­ment. The more out­ra­geous fees and the high­er inter­est loans they can sign you up for, the more work­ers who have a base salary of only about $10 an hour make.”

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. Many work­ers now feel pres­sure to meet strict quo­tas for sign­ing peo­ple up for accounts with high over­draft fees. 

To meet her quo­tas, for­mer Bank of Amer­i­ca work­er Nan­cy Sor­to would often go to pub­lic places to sign peo­ple up for check­ing accounts. I would have to work ten or twelve hours a day try­ing to meet these goals, but I would only be paid for eight,” Sor­to said. 

The real irony is that the work­ers who do cus­tomer ser­vice that actu­al­ly tries to help peo­ple in banks are treat­ed the worst, while the bankers on Wall Street who do things that hurt peo­ple are paid huge bonus­es,” Greater Boston Labor Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Louis Man­dari­ni said at a com­mu­ni­ty meet­ing in Boston to gath­er sup­port for orga­niz­ing bank work­ers this July. Indeed, for just 3.6 per­cent of the cost of the bonus­es paid to Wall Street exec­u­tives, the salaries of America’s near­ly 550,000 bank tellers in the coun­try could be increased by $2 an hour, and ful­ly employ­er paid health insur­ance could be pro­vid­ed to all of them. 

Labor activists believe that if bank work­ers could join a union, work­ers would have more pow­er in reshap­ing the way banks treat con­sumers. And that could pre­vent the pro­lif­er­a­tion of risky lend­ing prac­tices, which trig­gered the cur­rent crisis.

By demon­strat­ing the inter­re­la­tion­ship between dereg­u­la­tion of the banks, banks’ abuse of their own work­ers and con­sumers, and the sub­se­quent crash of the econ­o­my,” Lern­er argued in a recent New Labor Forum arti­cle, we can devel­op a cam­paign that cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion of an angry pub­lic, chal­lenges the pow­er of Wall Street and leads to sub­stan­tive fix­es for the Amer­i­can economy.”

A glob­al response to a glob­al industry

Lern­er is con­sid­ered one of the whiz kids of the labor move­ment, but the idea of orga­niz­ing the bank­ing sec­tor was not his own. The impe­tus came from the Brazil­ian Bank Work­ers Union, CON­TRAF, which has a large pres­ence with­in San­tander. (The bulk of the company’s Latin Amer­i­can oper­a­tions are in Brazil.) Eighty per­cent of Brazil­ian bank work­ers are orga­nized, and they work six hour days and enjoy 30 days of vaca­tion a year. 

Brazil­ian work­ers are so pow­er­ful, in fact, that Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Luiz Iná­cio Lula da Sil­va tapped union leader Paulo Bernar­do Sil­va to be the head of the country’s Min­istry of Plan­ning. This is the equiv­a­lent of Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma replac­ing Nation­al Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil Direc­tor Lar­ry Sum­mers with AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka. As the U.S. labor move­ment strug­gles just to con­firm labor lawyers to the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board, that’s some­thing union­ists here can only dream about. 

But CON­TRAF work­ers’ pow­er is now threat­ened. As bank man­agers are trans­ferred to San­tander oper­a­tions out­side of glob­al finance cap­i­tals (New York, Lon­don), they are tak­ing prac­tices learned there with them. San­tander man­agers are now try­ing to force employ­ees out­side of the Unit­ed States in both Europe and Latin Amer­i­ca to adopt a quo­ta sys­tem in which pay is linked to a worker’s abil­i­ty to sell sub-prime prod­ucts with hid­den fees. 

For the last 10 years, work­ers have been com­ing to these inter­na­tion­al labor con­fer­ences and insist­ing that we orga­nize bank work­ers in the U.S. because they are so threat­ened by U.S. prac­tices,” Lern­er explains. It’s per­haps the first time in the his­to­ry of the U.S. labor move­ment where for­eign unions have been the dri­ving force behind launch­ing an orga­niz­ing dri­ve of this nature in the U.S.”

Labor’s abil­i­ty to orga­nize bank work­ers isn’t just cru­cial to chang­ing the econ­o­my, it’s cru­cial to reviv­ing a labor move­ment whose pri­vate sec­tor mem­ber­ship has fall­en below 8 per­cent. With the pop­u­lar­i­ty of U.S. unions at a 70-year low – a Pew sur­vey this year showed that unions had a favor­a­bil­i­ty rat­ing of 41 per­cent, down dra­mat­i­cal­ly from 58 per­cent in 2007 – and with the left and right still anger at bailed-out banks, Lern­er believes the labor move­ment could find wide­spread sup­port for orga­niz­ing bank work­ers to fight unfair prac­tices. It’s cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble: The U.S. labor move­ment has seen its great­est gains – the obvi­ous exam­ple being the 1930s – when orga­niz­ing was done in con­cert with mass social movements.

We are protest­ing out­side of banks near­ly every week, [and] we would love to pick­et for work­ers rights,” said one per­son attend­ing the Boston meet­ing in July. 

Labor activists believe that if bank workers could join a union, workers would have more power in reshaping the way banks treat consumers. And that could prevent another crisis.
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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