After Walmart and fast food, labor activists now targeting banks

With tactics learned from past battles, community organizers try to rally bank tellers to take on their employers

Every morning, Tiago Marques puts on a nice shirt and tie and heads to his job at a regional bank in Newark, New Jersey. He spends much of his day counting cash. Some days, he measures more money than he makes in a whole year.

That's not so hard though; Marques earns less than $10 an hour.

"People look at me, and think, 'This guy must be really comfortable. Sitting around all day, counting money,'" he said. "But the reality of things is I can't even pay my bills." 

Tiago Marques formally registering to the membership rolls of the Committee for Better Banks.
Courtesy of Tiago Marques

A little over a year ago, Marques, 26, was living with his wife in Miami, working a good-paying, creative job at a production company, pursuing his passion. But when they decided to get a divorce, circumstances brought him back home to Newark. He said he's now making just a dollar more an hour than the landscaping jobs he worked as an undocumented kid in high school, after immigrating from Brazil with his family.

Now, he said he's got his papers and an associate's degree and works full-time, but he lives with his parents because he can't afford his own place.

"The saddest part about it is we work for an industry that makes billions and billions a year," he said, asking that we not publish the name of his bank for fear of retaliation.

Then, around a year ago, his kid sister, a local student organizer, told him a new movement was stirring.

Union-back organizers have successfully whipped up low-wage worker campaigns at Walmart, the fast food industry, airports and even the Pentagon. Now, advocates have turned their attention to the low-wage staff of America's most high-flying industry: banking. 

There are more than half a million bank tellers in America, and they earned an average of $11.99 an hour in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, a U.C. Berkeley Labor Center analysis found that almost a third of bank tellers rely on public assistance, compared to 25 percent of the workforce as a whole, costing taxpayers nearly $900 million a year. 

In October, dozens of community organizers convened in Baltimore to plan strategy. Marques was one of 10 bank workers to attend.

"I heard the stories," he said of the other workers. "I'm not alone. It's something other people are going through."

Founding members

Tiago Marques at the St. Paul, Minnesota, Wells Fargo rally on Monday.
Courtesy of Tiago Marques

On Monday, Marques was in the lobby of Wells Fargo in St. Paul, Minnesota, shoulder-to-shoulder with a handful of other low-wage bank workers and dozens of community advocates. It was one of the first labor actions of a new coalition of community groups called the Committee for Better Banks, backed by the union Communications Workers of America. The group "occupied" the lobby after bank executives refused to hear their demands.

"In an industry that boasts more than $100 billion in profits, we who actually serve the public should be able to pay our bills, send our kids to college, buy a home, and put money in savings," the committee declares on its website.

This weekend, the Committee for Better Banks formally launched its membership roll for bank workers. Eight have signed up so far, according to Erin Mahoney, an organizing coordinator at CWA.

"It's not a huge number, but these are the founding members," she told America Tonight, adding that thousands of other workers have expressed interest through petitions, social media and in-person meetings.

We also have a larger vision for transforming the industry of banking itself … localized, personalized, free of toxic products and the pressure to push them.

Roger Schwartz

community organizer

Like their comrades at Walmart and McDonald's, the bank workers are calling for better pay. But they have another grievance, specific to their trade: their employers' fixation on sales goals, which some workers say force them to push predatory products, like unneeded credit cards, on members of their own community.

"When aggressive sales goals compete with customers' needs, one side always wins," stated a petition delivered at Monday's protest, which garnered more than 11,000 signatures. "We're calling on Wells Fargo to immediately review its community banking program and lower excessive sales targets for team members."

More than a third of bank tellers report tougher sales pressures since 2008, according to a 2013 survey of more than 5,000 bank workers, primarily in New York City, conducted by Center for Popular Democracy, a liberal-leaning think tank. 

Certainly sales are one part of our goal at Wells Fargo. But the goals for our team members also include customer experience and ethical behavior.

Richele Messick

Wells Fargo spokeswoman

The pressure-cooker culture has resulted in ethical breaches. In 2013, Wells Fargo fired 30 Los Angeles employees for reportedly opening fake bank accounts and manipulating customer surveys to hit their goals. A follow-up Los Angeles Times investigation found that Wells Fargo workers, striving to meet their quotas, had also ordered credit cards without customers' permission, forged clients' signatures and begged families to open ghost accounts.

"Certainly sales are one part of our goal at Wells Fargo. But the goals for our team members also include customer experience and ethical behavior," Wells Fargo spokeswoman Richele Messick told America Tonight. "We constantly monitor and test against those goals to make sure they're driving behavior that's in the best interest for our customers."

On the issue of wages, she said Wells Fargo offered competitive compensation.

"I see day in and day out people making their careers at this company," she said. "And we are proud of that."

Shame the same

Tiago Marques holds a sign at the Wells Fargo rally on Monday.
Courtesy of Tiago Marques

The low-wage banker campaign is in some ways Occupy Wall Street recast as a labor fight: People shouldn't just be protected from getting predatory financial products pushed on them; workers should be protected from needing to push them. 

Every social justice campaign since Occupy has been influenced by it, according to Roger Schwartz, an organizer at New Jersey Communities United, which is part of the Committee for Better Banks. But the organizers' strategy owes more to the union-funded worker movements that have rocked the worlds of fast food and retail over the last few years.

In this new playbook, organizers go into traditionally non-union industries, coordinate one-day media-blitzed actions, and try to embarrass some of America's biggest companies into giving their workers a raise. On Wednesday, labor groups are coordinating what they say is their largest ever low-wage worker protest, spanning 40 countries and more than 200 cities, united under the banner "Fight for 15."

After decades of waning labor power, this approach has won some decisive victories. Last year, President Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour, after a string of protests in Washington, D.C. In February, Walmart announced all workers would earn at least $9 an hour, giving 500,000 people a raise. Target and T.J. Maxx soon followed. And earlier this month, McDonald's announced a pay bump for 90,000 employees.

"We're planning the mass actions, the shaming of these corporations," said Schwartz. "But we also have a larger vision for transforming the industry of banking itself … localized, personalized, free of toxic products and the pressure to push them."

The hard part is recruiting the workers for the fight. For community organizers, the goal is always for the community to take charge of the battle. Marques has tried speaking with some of his co-workers about the campaign, but he feels like it'll need time.

"If I don't say something, no one else will," he said. "People are afraid of saying something."

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