Unions launch international Better Banks campaign

A coalition of unions and consumer advocates on February 18 rallied at the Citibank headquarters on Wall Street to protest the way that US banks treat their workers.

At the rally, the unions announced that they were launching an international campaign to support union organizing among US bank employees.

The main goal of the campaign called Better Banks is to improve work at banks so that banks can better serve customers.

Better Banks is a joint effort of CWA, UNI Global Union, and the Committee for Better Banks.

Rally participants included members of bank worker unions from around the world attending a New York City conference about the Better Banks campaign.

An estimated one million bank workers and customers worldwide demonstrated their support for Better Banks by tweeting and posting on Facebook pictures and messages of support for the Wall Street demonstrators.

According to those at the rally, stark inequalities characterize work in the US banking system.

“I have been to sales rallies, where the top executives of the company brag about how great the stock is doing, then the next morning I have to listen to one of my tellers complain she doesn’t have enough money to buy baby formula for her child,” said Robert Freeman, a former bank employee now working to organize the industry.

A report by the Committee for Better Banks shows that low wages are the norm for many bank employees.

The report finds that because of low salaries one-third of US bank employees qualify for some kind of public assistance such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and Medicaid and other children’s health programs.

The salaries of top executives on the other hand are much more generous. “The outsized wealth and power of Wall Street is evidenced in salary raises for CEOs like Jamie Dimon,” reads the report. “In 2013 Dimon received a 74% pay increase, bringing his salary to nearly $20 million, after being fined $20 billion dollars for regulatory violations.”

Bank workers also work under stressful conditions that put their health at risk.

“I was a confident and loyal employee,” said a bank employee, who wished to remain anonymous, to the authors of the report. “After being slammed daily for sales scores I started to have panic attacks and lost all pride in my work because it was never good enough.”

This kind of pressure can lead to poor customer service.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Well Fargo managers made their sales representatives call friends and family to pressure them into opening accounts.

Unlike top bank executives like Dimon, who maintained his position at JP Morgan Chase despite the banks’ involvement in scandals, front line bank workers have little job security.

In New York City, there are 19,800 fewer people working in the financial industry since the industry’s crash in 2008.

That trend holds true across the US. In 2006, the height of employment in the banking sector, there were 8.35 million banking sector jobs. Currently, there are 7.7 million.

Many of the lost jobs are direct service jobs such as tellers at branch offices, but cuts also are taking place among IT and call center workers, whose jobs have been outsourced to countries such as India and the Philippines.

Job cuts are expected to continue. Bank of America is projecting job cuts affecting 10 percent of its workforce during 2014. JP Morgan, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and UBS AG are also projecting job cuts during 2014 ranging from 3 percent 16 percent of their workforce.

Bank employees are told that the jobs cuts, excessive pressure, and low wages are natural features of bank work, but that’s not the case when bank employees have unions.

In Brazil, bank workers, 95 percent of whom belong to a union, conducted a 23-day strike in 2013 that won an 8 percent across the board pay raise, an 8.5 percent increase in the minimum pay, and a 12 percent increases in profit sharing. They also were compensated for their time off during the strike and won protections against management harassment, one day’s pay per year of service for absence allowances, and compensation that allows them to enjoy cultural activities.

The new collective bargaining agreement resulting from the strike calls for the creation of a team of independent experts who will investigate the causes of employment related illnesses.

In the US, the unions that organized the recent Wall Street demonstration are also hoping that the kind of international solidarity expressed in support of the Better Banks campaign will make it easier for US bank workers to join a union.

“Nowadays, it is really hard to build unions in the United States and this kind of innovative solidarity movement can make a change by delivering the message to the US workers that they are not alone,” said Christy Hoffman, deputy general secretary for UNI Global.

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