Bank Workers Rising

Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA via AP Image

A Wells Fargo bank branch in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania

Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a city ordinance that sought to do something no other U.S.-based government had done before: Insulate bank employees—and through them, the bank’s depositors—from their bank’s high-pressure sales tactics. The ordinance stipulated that in order for the city to deposit its funds in a bank, that bank would have to produce documents demonstrating that it wasn’t linking its employees’ pay, or continued employment, to the sale of products that its depositors might—or might not—want or need.

There was ample reason why it was Los Angeles that produced the first such ordinance, for it was in Los Angeles that the first major Wells Fargo scandal (there have been several since) came to light. Faced with demands that they prod depositors to open additional accounts, Wells employees fabricated at least 3.4 million such accounts. The practice, which had been particularly pervasive in Southern California, first came to light when Wells employees brought the story to the Los Angeles Times. After their account was published, LA City Attorney Michael Feuer brought suit against Wells, initiating a chain of suits, settlements and penalties that to date have cost the bank more than $1 billion in fines and compelled it to sack its CEO, replace most of its directors, and place an ongoing and somewhat numbing series of four-full-page ads in leading newspapers attesting to the bank’s good, if only recently deemed necessary, moral character.

The workers who blew the whistle on Wells were among the nucleus of employees who formed the Committee for Better Banks (CBB)—an initiative of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The project first took shape under the leadership of Larry Cohen, then the CWA’s president, who did as much or more than any other U.S. union president to build strategic alliances with unions overseas. It became quickly apparent to Cohen that in most other countries (particularly in Europe and Latin America), bank employees were almost universally unionized. In the United States, by contrast, not only were bank workers not unionized at all, but the rate of unionization in the Finance-Insurance-Real Estate sector was the lowest of any sector of the American economy.

Cohen, and his successor as president, Chris Shelton, decided to deploy organizers to sound out the nation’s bank workers. They found an industry whose greed had not only led to the Great Recession but also had compelled its employees to plunge customers into debt they couldn’t conceivably retire. They found bank workers indignant at a system that penalized them if they didn’t persuade customers to take on such debt or open new accounts. 

“You’re in a pressure cooker,” says Jerry Robinson, until recently a longtime employee of Santander (a Spanish bank with branches throughout the U.S.) and Citibank before that. Until he retired in 2016 Robinson was employed at Santander’s massive collections center in Dallas, Texas, where his job was to deal with customers who’d fallen behind on their car payments. “The customer may need more time to come up with the payments he owes, and you have to transfer the pressure you’re under—your bonus and your job is at stake—to the customer. You often extend the loan so the customer has to pay more on the back end, which, of course, hurts the customer in the long run—but that’s what you have to do with all the pressure the bank puts on you.” 

Teresa Casertano, who until recently coordinated the CBB campaign, describes some of the practices that any number of workers in Santander’s collections divisions have said they’re required to implement. “When people fall behind on car payments, collection agents are told to set the next payment deadline 30 or 60 days later, even though it’s clear they’ll be unable to pay then and their car will be repossessed. The customer may be relieved, but it adds more payments, penalties, processing fees and interest to what he’s socked with at the end—and Santander employees are told not to inform them about the additional fees.”

“The workers can’t stand this,” Casertano continues. “They don’t want to do this, but they’re forced to. They talk about the customers, and tell us, ‘That could be me.’”

In case the employees waver, the boss is always listening. At the Santander’s Dallas call center where Robinson worked, which employs close to 4,000 workers, Casertano reports that, “every minute the employees are on the phone is recorded and monitored by a voice analytics tool, an AI system named Call Miner. It detects every single word, the worker’s tone of voice; it’s programmed to count the number of times a worker apologizes or raises his voice; it verifies that he follow the script.”

Santander uses Call Miner to rate its employees, though in the face of protests it no longer uses it as its primary means of employee rating. The workers’ protests concerned some obvious flaws in Call Miner’s programming: It couldn’t decipher accents clearly, and it heard male voices a lot more clearly than female ones. Santander employs coaches to help its callers, but until this year, Call Miner’s rating of a worker’s calls overrode whatever judgments the coaches made. “When Call Miner said you failed to satisfy its presentation criteria,” says Casertano, “you lost your bonus, you could be disciplined, you could be terminated.”

Several state attorneys general, including those of Delaware and Massachusetts, have sued Santander for deceptive practices that have driven customers into financial ruin. 

CBB’s focus on Wells Fargo requires no explanation. Its focus on Santander derives from the fact that the bank is almost entirely unionized everywhere but the United States, with particularly strong unions in Brazil and its home turf in Spain. Those unions have helped CBB raise its demands to the company; Brazilian workers actually struck and closed down the bank’s Brazilian branches for a day in support of the U.S. workers’ demands for less onerous practices and more worker power. Moreover, Santander—unlike Wells, JP Morgan Chase, or any other U.S. bank—can’t complain that having a unionized workforce would destabilize its business practices.

In that sense, Santander is to the CWA as all the foreign-owned auto companies that have factories in the American South are to the United Auto Workers. Those companies—Volkswagen, Mercedes, Nissan, Hyundai—are entirely unionized in their home countries and throughout the world—everywhere but, of course, in the U.S. The UAW gets help from auto unions like Germany’s IG Metall in its dealings with these companies—though that help, and the UAW’s repeated organizing campaigns, have yet to result in the union winning recognition in any of the auto plants. 

The CWA’s path to winning a union for Santander’s workers is strewn with no fewer obstacles than the UAW has encountered in its decades-long fight to unionize the transplant-factories’ autoworkers. Nonetheless, because Santander is a foreign-owned bank unionized everyplace else, and because it is still struggling to expand its beachhead in the U.S., the CWA’s targeting makes sense.

As does its targeting of Wells, whose scandals have made it much the weakest of the nation’s four major consumer-and-investment banks. The focus on Wells not only stems from the pressure management put on workers to sell needless products and to fabricate fictitious accounts, but from the fact that in calling for a halt to such abusive practices, the workers and CBB are also representing the interests of the consumer public. “We emphasize what the workers want, which is improving their working conditions,” says Erin Mahoney, who succeeded Casertano as the CBB’s coordinator, “and it largely aligns with community interests, too. All the big banks have the same kind of sales metrics by which they measure workers,” she adds, “but the public knows about what Wells has done.” 

In calling on the banks to halt practices that hurt both employees and the broader public, the CBB is extending a strategy newly embraced by the teachers’ unions and that is beginning to win adherents across the embattled labor movement generally: Bargaining for the Common Good. If the strategy has a leading theoretician, it’s Stephen Lerner, the mastermind of the Justice for Janitors campaign that unionized tens of thousands of janitors in downtown office buildings across the land, and who is now the lead strategist behind the efforts to organize bank workers. 

The union action that gave Bargaining for the Common Good a splashy and successful debut was the 2012 strike of Chicago teachers, in which they made common cause with schoolchildren’s parents (no fans of teaching-to-the-test) in opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s demand to link teacher pay to student test scores. In this spring’s wave of teacher strikes, teachers were demanding not just higher pay but more funding for the schools—a cause that won such overwhelming parental support that Republican governor and legislatures were compelled to grant many of the teachers’ demands. 

As the teachers made common cause with parents, so the bank workers have won allies in the consumer rights and bank reform communities, and in the case of Wells, with the public at large—the proximate cause of the new Los Angeles ordinance. The CBB has worked with financial reform groups in efforts to preserve the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and participated with such groups in shareholder meetings at major banks. At this spring’s annual meeting of Wells Fargo’s shareholders, held this year in Des Moines, the CBB not only demonstrated outside the meeting with members of People’s Action, but also had workers inside the meeting as the proxy-voting representatives of unions with shares in the bank. On their behalf, Alex Ross, a CBB activist who works for Wells in Minneapolis, spoke for a motion to add a Wells employee representative to the company’s newly established Stakeholder Advisory Council—a group that Wells felt compelled to establish in response to the seemingly unending torrent of consumer abuse scandals.

“With Wells now publicly committed to making restitution for its actions,” says Ross, “we feel now would be a good time for the CBB to get a seat at the table as well.” Members of the council, which includes representatives of church groups and organizations like the Center for Responsible Lending, seem responsive to the request, which the CBB initially presented to management last year. Until the Des Moines meeting, the company had been cool to the idea, but Wells CEO Timothy Sloan seemed open to the idea when Ross raised it at the meeting, and CBB is following up.

The seat on the council is one of three demands that CBB has put before Wells management. The other two are a $20 hourly minimum wage for Wells employees, and a delinking of worker pay to sales metrics. In May, Wells announced in one of its four-page ads that it was raising its workers minimum wage to $15 an hour—a clear sign that the CBB’s demands were being heard, if by no means entirely agreed to. 

Winning a seat on the advisory council would be more of a breakthrough than even winning the $20 minimum. “Getting a seat at the table would give employees a voice, someone they could speak through,” says Ross. That would be something that no frontline American bank worker had ever attained before—and just maybe, a foot in the door to eventual unionization.

In pursuing its common good strategy, CBB has partnered with a range of institutions—including the German Social Democrats’ Frederich Ebert Foundation—in developing a new case for worker organization: Regulation from Below. In a white paper and a series of conferences (including one this Monday keynoted by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz), CBB and other advocates argue that bank workers, if empowered, can expose and thereby help check abusive banking practices that regulatory agencies charged with bank oversight might not detect until it’s too late. Certainly, the exposure of Wells’ misdeeds by workers who belonged to the CBB makes a persuasive case for the efficacy of Regulation from Below—particularly inasmuch as no bank regulator had discovered the practices until the workers came forward. 

In one sense, regulation from below is hardly a new concept for unions. The health-and-safety committees that many unions have established through collective bargaining give union committee members the power to shape company safety policies along with management, and to enforce those policies on the job – in some cases, the right to call work stoppages when dangerous work conditions are observed. Such committees are the first line of worker defense in the unionized workplaces where they exist. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has nowhere near the capacity to monitor workplaces that the unions do. In the case of the banking industry, regulating from below would similarly bring into existence more monitors than the Federal Reserve, the Controller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, combined, could ever deploy. Moreover, the conditions they’d be monitoring would directly affect not merely the well-being of workers, but the well-being of consumers and of the economy at large.

Given the forces arrayed against unions in the current political economy, the odds that the CWA and the CBB could unionize America’s bank workers—unless and until the current political economy is overthrown—are slim. That said, their campaign has already brought down much of the governing regime at one of America’s largest banks, reinvigorated labor’s tradition of worker regulation, shown how an expanded vision of bargaining can help workers win allies and public support, and may yet give workers a voice in at least one major bank’s deliberations. And so long as the major banks remain the most powerful force in the nation’s political economy—but also the force with the least public support—the fight of the bank workers will remain daunting, but not impossible. 

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