Banking on More Than $15

(Photo courtesy of the St. Paul Union Advocate)

Activists demonstrate outside a Wells Fargo building in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, this past spring.

Last week, Amalgamated Bank announced that under its latest contract, all of its bank workers will earn a starting wage of at least $15 an hour. “We think it’s the right thing for our bank to do, and frankly we think it’s the right thing for all banks to do,” Amalgamated CEO Keith Mestrich told Buzzfeed News. “If any industry in this country can afford to set a new minimum for its workers, it’s the banking industry.”

Though it’s not surprising that the union-owned bank is upping its wages, the move reflects a growing push among labor advocates, community coalitions, and financial reformers to improve the working conditions for the employees on the frontlines of highly profitable banking operations—the bank tellers who process your deposits; the customer-service representatives who answer your questions on the phone; the personal bankers who help you get a loan. 

Despite the banking sector’s reputation as a lucrative field, retail banking is a different story. There are roughly 1.7 million retail-bank workers, and more than half a million—30 percent—are in positions with median hourly wages below $15 an hour. For the half a million (mostly women) bank tellers in the United States, nearly 75 percent make less than $15 an hour, according to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP). One-third of the bank tellers are on some type of public assistance, despite handling the daily transactions for some of the most profitable companies in the world. Taxpayers shell out $900 million a year in public assistance for bank tellers and their families, according to the Committee for Better Banks.

Thiago Marques recalls that when he was working full-time as a bank teller in New Jersey, he was told at a doctor’s appointment that his employer’s health insurance was so bad that he’d be better off getting on Medicaid. For the year and a half that he worked at the bank, he only got a 20-cent raise that brought his pay up to $10.20 an hour.

Eventually Marques got fed up with the lack of respect from management and left the bank. “You’re not getting the respect that comes with the territory,” he told the Prospect. “You have to dress up, but basically you’re working as a cashier in Walmart.”

Labor activists were first exploring the possibility of organizing in the banking sector before the financial crisis that began in 2008. Banking is a heavily unionized sector in other countries and international trade unionists were pressuring the U.S. movement to get on board, arguing that there are global ramifications for the most powerful banking sector in the world to not be unionized.

Right now, the Committee for Better Banks is the main driver of organizing and is working to build a membership of thousands of frontline bank workers and advocates. They have active committees in the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Providence, Newark, Orlando, and Southern California.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, a bank job was a path to the middle class,” says Renata Pumarol, a spokesperson for the Committee for Better Banks. “From meeting with workers, we see that is no longer the case.”

Not only is the pay lackluster for many bank tellers and other lower-level bank employees, but they are expected to push products to customers and meet often-excessive sales quotas. As one personal banker for Wells Fargo told The Guardian, he was expected to make 20 sales a day to customers—whether it was a new account, travel insurance, or withdrawal protection.

In April, bank workers and a coalition of community groups in the banking hub of Minneapolis protested in front of Wells Fargo’s corporate headquarters, objecting to the culture of pressure sales that put added stress on workers and are often not in the best interest of customers.

Cassaundra Plummer works for TD Bank in Bowie, Maryland. The bank is open seven days a week and she often works more than ten days straight without a day off. She has worked as a teller for TD since 2010. She started making $11 an hour and through minimal raises, she’s gradually worked her way up to $14 an hour. Plummer, who has two children, can’t afford her employer’s health plan, so she’s forced to try to get benefits through the state.

She knows firsthand the challenges of trying to meet demanding sales quotas. “Sometimes it’s hard for us, because as tellers we know that these products might not necessarily be beneficial to our customer,” Plummer says. But, “every customer, every time is the mantra.”

In addition to combatting sales quotas, community groups involved in the local efforts are also pushing for banks to be better community members. Teachers unions are calling for a moratorium on foreclosures during the school year. Somali immigrants in the Twin Cities are calling for banks to ease restrictions on remittances to home countries. And more broadly, the crux of the movement is to tie improved working conditions for bank employees to the financial-reform movement.

“The only way to win this campaign is to align it with broader reform in the financial sector,” says Stephen Lerner, architect of the successful Justice for Janitors campaign, who has been a key strategist for this effort. “You completely link what’s good for bank workers with what’s good for consumers.”

The strategic challenge is that traditional worker-organizing and public pressure campaigns will not work against U.S. banks because the banks wield too much power. Taking one look at how much the sector pays in fines for violations to the government shows that when confronted with public pressure, banks prefer fines to altering their behavior.

“If we’re saying that we need to fight for $15 for fast-food workers, we need to think bigger for the finance industry,” Lerner says.

While the bank-organizing efforts are tapping into the higher-wage rhetoric found in the Fight for 15, it will likely require a completely different strategic approach.

“It won’t look like fast food in the sense that we’ll pick one bank and put all our energy on that one bank,” Lerner explains. “Rather, it will be local committees and coalitions on the ground forging their own paths that fit the needs of their workers and communities.”

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