Bank workers of the world unite

In Brazil, private sector bank employees recently returned to work after a 23-day strike that won them a substantial pay raise.

In St. Louis, members of CWA passed out leaflets to bank employees urging them to get involved in the union’s Press One for America campaign.

The two events nearly 4,500 miles apart are not unrelated.

In a recent union hall teleconference, CWA President Larry Cohen told members that the Brazilian bank workers’ union, CONTRAF, has been in contact with CWA urging it to consider helping US bank workers to organize.

Brazilian bank employees have a strong union, but they will need some help in maintaining their strength in the face of a changing world economy.

Since 2004, CONTRAF, which has 400,000 members and represents about 95 percent of the banks’ non-management employees, has been in a running battle with Brazil’s private banks to raise pay and improve working conditions.

Negotiations have not been easy, and nearly every year union workers have had to strike to win a fair pay increase despite “years in which Brazilian banks enjoyed record profits.”

Despite the banks’ prosperity, their employees receive modest wages. The Wall Street Journal reports that Brazilian bank employees’ average monthly salary is $2,000, only slightly above Brazil’s average salary of $1848 a month.

This year, banks offered a 7.1percent pay increase, which is about the national inflation rate. Union members wanted more.

The strike ended after workers ratified an agreement that raises all wages by 8 percent, increases base pay by 8.6 percent, includes a profit-sharing plan that could increase wages by up to 2 percent, and pays workers for the time that they were on strike, all of which puts the wage increase close to the 11.9 percent originally demanded by the union.

In addition, the new contract changes work rules to protect workers from mistreatment on the job.

US banks have a presence in Brazil, but not a big one. The Bank of Brazil, owned by the government, is the country’s largest bank. But privately owned domestic banks like Itau Unibanco own a substantial share of the market.

But that could change as more US bank’s look to expand in Brazil.

“Brazil represents one of the most important strategic markets globally and our new banking license will significantly enhance our ability to meet the securities servicing needs of our clients,” said Gerald Hassle, chair, president, and CEO of New York Mellon in a press release after the bank in 2012 was awarded a license to expand in Brazil.

According to the Citigroup website, “Brazil is a major player in Citi’s emerging markets strategy.”

Citigroup through Citi Brazil already has branches in 20 cities that provide an array of services.

As US banks increase their presence in Brazil, CONTRAF leaders reasoned that if the union wants to maintain its current level of union density and strength, it may need allies in the US, which led them to contact CWA.

CWA in the meantime has been organizing a campaign to save call center jobs in the US.

The Press One for America campaign aims to pass legislation that stops the federal government from providing federal loans and grants to companies that ship jobs, including call center jobs, overseas. It would also require a call center to inform customers where the call center is located and give customers the opportunity to be transferred to a US call center.

Since customer service bank jobs are being outsourced overseas, CWA leaders decided to let bank employees know about the campaign and give them a chance to participate and learn first hand what a union can do for them.

CWA chose St Louis to begin its outreach to bank employees because the city is one of the fastest growing financial services centers in the country.

According to CWA, employment in St Louis’ financial services grew by 85 percent between 2007 and 2013.

Members from CWA locals 6300, 6350 and 6355; Missouri Jobs with Justice; and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment on October 24 leafleted work locations of Citibank, Wells Fargo, Pulaski Bank, and Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority. They also got signatures on a petition supporting HR 2909 and SB 1565, the Press One legislation.

According to a post on the CWA website, “The response to the outreach was overwhelming.”

At Wells Fargo, employees happily stopped and talked to (union) activists outside their building. At Citibank, workers came outside on their breaks specifically to ask questions; coincidentally, the company had announced that week that it intended on outsourcing 100 call center jobs in the complex.

Jeff Spraul, Local 6300 president, said that CWA plans to be a regular presence at these banks.

“We plan to be active two days a week,” said Spraul. “It’s not a one and done situation. Building a movement takes time – consistent effort and consistent determination.”

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