Santander Bank employees demand right to join a union

Santander Bank employees on February 21 rallied in Boston and Dallas for the right to join a union.

Santander Bank is an international banking corporation headquartered in Spain. In the US, its bank branches are located mainly in the Northeast. It also owns a subprime consumer loan company called Santander Consumer USA that operates out of Dallas.

In 2016, Santander Bank’s holding company reported profits of $5.9 billion.

Santander bank employees were joined at the rally by consumer rights advocates. They all belong to the Committee for Better Banks (CBB), a coalition of bank employees and consumer advocates working together to improve conditions in the banking industry for both employees and customers. CBB is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America.

At the February 21 rallies, bank employees and consumer advocates, delivered letter to Santander executives demanding that they respect their employees right join a union.

One of the reasons that bank employees say they need a union is that banks like Santander often pit the interests of employees against the interest of customers.

“Our neighbors and communities trust us to help them–whether it’s with a loan or saving for their kid’s college tuition–but Santander executives choose to put us in an impossible position between providing for our families and doing what’s best for our customers,” said Peggy Spencer, a Santander Consumer worker in Dallas. ” Today, we’re taking our first major step to winning a voice on the job, improving working conditions, and putting an end to discriminatory, deceptive practices that are holding back thousands of families.”

Like other large banks, Santander has been accused of predatory practices that hurt customers.

In July, Santander paid a $10 million fine after the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) charged it with deceptive trade practices. According to CFPB, Santander customers were given false information about the high cost of the bank’s overdraft protection service. In some cases, customers were enrolled in overdraft protection without their consent.

In 2015, Santander Consumer paid $9.5 million to settle a US Justice Department suit. The suit charged Santander with violating the Service Members Civil Relief Act, which protects service members on active duty from unlawful repossession of their vehicles.

According to the Justice Department, its “lawsuit alleges that Santander initiated and completed 760 repossessions, without court orders, of motor vehicles owned by . . . protected service members.  . . .  By failing to obtain court orders before repossessing motor vehicles owned by protected service members, Santander prevented service members from obtaining a court’s review of whether their repossessions should be delayed or adjusted in light of their military service.”

The settlement requires Santander to pay each service member affected $5000 and help them repair their credit rating.

More recently, a report by CBB finds that Santander’s lending practices are discriminatory.

An “analysis of the bank’s Home Mortgage Lending Act data reported each year to federal regulators reveals a disturbing pattern of racial and economic discrimination in Santander’s home mortgage lending,” reads the report entitled “Denied: An Assessment of Racial and Economic Disparities in Santander Bank’s Mortgage Lending.”

“In 2014, Santander denied more than 26 percent of borrowers of color a mortgage loan, compared to an aggregate 17 percent denial rate by other banks in the same (market areas),” continues the report.

In addition to wanting to help end Santander’s customer service problems, the bank’s employees have their own collective grievances, which are shared by employees of other large banks.

The median average pay for bank tellers is a little more than $26,400 a year. Pay among tellers is so low, reports CBB, that one-third of tellers nationwide qualify for some sort of public assistance, such as food stamps or Medicaid.

Higher level employees have their own salary-related grievances. Their salaries are often determined by whether they meet unrealistically high sales quotas, putting pressure on them to sell unwanted and sometimes expensive services to their customers.

To address these grievances, bank workers need a union, say union supporters, and they want Santander to extend to them the same rights that Santander employees in other countries enjoy.

Santander operates throughout Europe and South America, and 150,000 of the bank’s employees on these two continents are union members.

“In Brazil, workers are partnering with management to promote customer service and ethical sales and to prevent predatory practices that force workers to push unnecessary products on their customers,” reads a statement by CBB. “In Europe, Santander jobs are stable, middle-class jobs that allow workers to care for their families.”

Santander employees in the US want the same things.

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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.