Economy

Workers of the (finance) world unite – and unionize

New effort to organize low-wage bank workers in US targets entire industry

Employees behind the counter at New York's flagship Citibank branch.
Jin Lee/Bloomberg/Getty Images

NEW YORK — Adjacent to its lofty, glass-faced midtown headquarters, Bank of America operates a humble retail location for individuals and small businesses. The branch serves many customers who work in the Bank of America Tower —secretaries and tech support, analysts and executives. One such patron, a former investment banker raised by struggling immigrants but schooled in the Ivy League, recalled the disconnect between his sky-high office and the retail branch. “I wondered if they feel inferior,” he said of the bank tellers, who likely earned a fifth of his salary.

While employed by the same entity, retail bank workers are worlds apart from those in corporate or high finance. Yet for giant universal banks like Bank of America and Citibank, comprising retail, commercial and investment banking divisions — a model made possible by the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 — the branch locations are a critical point of contact with ordinary Americans. And according to a new advocacy campaign, the underpaid workers in these branches may be the key to a more accountable banking system.

Today, kicking off a week of protests against big banks, the New Day New York Coalition released a report documenting historic levels of inequality in Wall Street’s hometown. The paper reveals that the top 1 percent of income earners take home 40 percent of New York’s total income and that the city’s financial sector was responsible for approximately 45 percent of job losses (affecting some 26,000 workers) in the first half of this year. While bank CEOs receive handsome compensation — JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon made $21 million in 2012 — 39 percent of bank tellers in New York State had to rely on public assistance to stay afloat.

Low pay, professional veneer

Ryan Filson, a 38-year-old assistant branch manager in New York, started out as a bank teller when he was 18. (He asked that his real name not be used.) “The money I made back then is the same that they’re paying tellers now to start: $10! And the workload is so different. Tellers have a harder job today than I ever saw,” he said, referring to time-intensive verification procedures for checks and deposits.

In 2010 the national median salary for tellers was $24,100, or just over $11 per hour. But tellers and other retail staff are often required to purchase suits and look the part of professional workers. They also face pressure to meet stringent quotas for referrals and sales of checking and savings accounts, credit cards, loans and mortgages while cultivating relationships with their customers.

“The three women (tellers) I work with all receive public assistance,” Filson said. “I was shocked. (The head teller) shows up for work on time, she has a great personality, she works hard. (With welfare), you have the image of someone lazy collecting a check, so for me, that was eye opening.”

On the corporate side, back-office personnel are paid meager hourly wages, are routinely outsourced and subcontracted and are segregated from analysts and investment bankers in the same company. Large banks often treat support departments as a drain on resources rather than a crucial part of the business.

According to subcontracted back-office workers at a prominent New York bank, clerical, security and technology staff are paid $12 per hour, though their predecessors — direct employees of the corporation before a massive restructuring — were paid $16 to $20 per hour. In the third quarter of this year, the same bank reported earnings of nearly $1 billion. (Those interviewed asked that neither they nor their employer be identified.)

The money I made back then is the same that they’re paying tellers now to start: $10!

Assistant branch manager of a bank in New York

Bank workers also cite job security and whistle-blower protections as pressing concerns. Twice in the recent past, Filson was subject to what he sees as retaliation for reporting suspicious transactions under the Bank Secrecy Act, a law meant to combat money laundering. The first time, his superiors transferred him to a different branch; the second time, his complaint was circulated widely.

“It made me think that during the mortgage crisis, there were probably people who saw things that didn’t seem quite right,” Filson said. “But even if they complained, it probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

Representatives of Wells Fargo and Bank of America would not respond to specific questions, and JPMorgan Chase and the American Bankers Association were unavailable for comment. But Bank of America spokeswoman Tara A. Burke told Al Jazeera in an email, “We work with each employee to support their career development and offer competitive compensation and benefits for employees. We also value their feedback and opinions and routinely create opportunities for ongoing dialogue.” Burke would neither confirm nor deny that entry-level tellers are paid $10 per hour, a rate advertised in the Wall Street Oasis Company Database

A trade union for bankers?

In countries such as South Africa, Australia and Argentina, employees of banks and insurance companies have pursued better pay and conditions through trade unions. The idea has floated around U.S. activist circles in recent years as well and may now be gaining real traction.

The Brazilian union CUT (Unified Workers’ Central) has provided seed money for organizing efforts in New York City, Miami and Orlando, home to Banco do Brasil branches and call centers. (Brazilian unions have also supported American automotive workers.) CUT president Vagner Freitas explained this transnational strategy at a union convention in September, saying, “We don’t have the bank workers in the U.S. organized, so we can’t organize workers around the world. A lot of them are in the U.S., and they have a great role to play.”

The Committee for Better Banks, which includes the Communication Workers of America union and the nonprofit Alliance for a Greater New York, has started reaching out to bank employees in the New York City area. By organizing a critical mass of retail and back-office workers, the campaign hopes to improve sector conditions and put people’s faces behind calls for accountability.

A finance-workers’ union could force employers to pay higher wages, empower tellers to refuse to sell high-interest credit cards and protect accountants who blow the whistle on creative bookkeeping — without fear of retaliation. The collective-bargaining process, moreover, would require banks to open their books to the union.

More than 500,000 employees in financial services worldwide have lost their jobs since 2008.

UNI Finance, a global union

“We want to create a (banking) system that’s sustainable in the long term. We need to have an actor that can make an intervention in society, and trade unions are an important actor to do that,” said Marcio Monzane, a former bank teller who now heads UNI Finance, a Brussels-based international union with 237 finance- and insurance-sector affiliates representing 3 million workers. UNI estimates that more than 500,000 employees in financial services worldwide have lost their jobs since 2008.

Despite the apparent message of recent settlements in the U.S. — $13 billion to be paid by JPMorgan Chase and $404 million by Bank of America — the big banks have, by and large, denied legal responsibility for the ongoing financial crisis. And a recent report on the finance sector by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that executives continue to prioritize profits and “career progression” over reputation and “adherence to ethical standards.” 

Organizers behind the New York City effort are sober about the challenges ahead. “We want the campaign to develop further before commenting,” a representative of the Communication Workers of America wrote in an email.

Retail workers, investment bankers, hedge-fund analysts and Wall Street activists interviewed for this story were skeptical about the viability and direct impact of a finance union on industry practices. But many acknowledged the campaign’s political potential — its ability to rally the American public behind low-wage bank workers, as with janitors, security guards and now fast-food and Walmart employees.

Part of the difficulty in holding Wall Street accountable, experts say, is the scale and complexity of the global financial machine. By keeping the focus on low-wage bank workers, organizers aim to cut this machine down to size.

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