Too Big Not to Organize: SEIU-International Coalition Try to Unionize the Banks

Why would SEIU, which has risen to prominence during the last 25 years in part by organizing janitors, be interested in organizing bank workers?
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Through the blare of screeching feedback from portable translation headsets and microphones, unionized bank workers from Brazil, England, Chile, Germany, and Uruguay are encouraging American workers to undertake an unprecedented campaign against a common enemy: Grupo Santander, the global banking giant which last year took control of Sovereign Bank.

The largest bank in the Euro-zone, where it is based, Santander is the world's eighth largest banking company by market capitalization. While the company is very good at generating profits around the world (it's the world's fourth largest bank by profits), this international meeting is focusing on something else: how the bank's new U.S. branches might become as unionized as branches in Europe and Latin America.

Santander bank branches are on average 75-percent unionized outside the United States, according to UNI Global Union Finance Director Oliver Roethig because most other industrialized nations have unionized banking sectors. In the United States, however, less than 1 percent of all front-office bank workers are organized. In fact, the unionized janitors working for contractors that clean Sovereign Bank's headquarters in Boston, Mass., often make more than the bank tellers and personal bankers, whose average wage is $10-$12 dollars per hour, despite individually producing millions of dollars in profits for the bank each year.

But the financial sector, at the center of the U.S. economy, has never been unionized. The international workers and local leaders of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Communication Workers of America (CWA) gathered in July to use the clout of global union federations like the UNI Global Union to give labor a foothold in Santander's Sovereign operations, and potentially organize the industry from there. If Santander employees are heavily unionized overseas, and corporate profits are so robust, then why shouldn't American workers also join a union?

Bank reform from the inside

Santander has already responded to the organizing campaign, labor activists say, firing three Boston Sovereign workers in June for organizing activities -- Steve Crowley, Janice DeJusi and Gary Rozenas. Crowley, who had worked at Sovereign for 30 years, was honored by the bank this spring for being a top seller, but was fired a week after signing a letter about office problems following Santander's acquisition of the bank. DeJusi and Rozenas were fired after talking to colleagues about forming a union, according to Andy Kerr of CWA.

Santander has denied discriminating against employees for union activity, saying Sovereign Bank adheres to all U.S. labor laws. A Sovereign spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment on union-busting allegations.

When Santander acquired Sovereign, it immediately laid off 23 percent of its new subsidiary's workers. The company cut pay, slashed hours and doubled the cost of health care for workers. Sovereign workers knew they had to do something, so they approached SEIU last spring to help them organize.

But why would SEIU, which has risen to prominence during the last 25 years in part by organizing janitors, be interested in organizing bank workers?

"Well, it started out in the 1980s -- we would organize a building [where janitors worked]... and find out that the management firm that owned the building was really owned by a pension fund, which was owned by an investment firm, which was ultimately owned by a bank," says Stephen Lerner, the brainchild of SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign and now director of SEIU's Banking and Finance Campaign. "This began a thirty-year process in which we began to discover how much power the big banks have."

The theory is that if workers gain some control over the banks through the power of unions and the ability to strike, they could have a chokehold on one of the economy's key sectors. "Our members are facing layoffs as a result of the economic crisis caused by the banks," says Lerner. They "are screaming out to do something against the banks...scamming them with outrageous bank fees and sub-prime loans."

The large corporations at the center of the subprime mortgage meltdown, such as Countrywide, often based pay for personal bankers on selling risky products. "The more money I sold you and the higher the rate, the more money I made," said Donna Feener, a former Bank of America employee who worked in the company's credit card balance transfer department. "The more outrageous fees and the higher interest loans they can sign you up for, the more workers who have a base salary of only about $10 an hour make."

To read the rest of this story please go here. Its an exclusive indepth look at the launch of an ambitious campaign that has the potential to reshape organized labor's economic and political power -- please go to In These Times where I am contributing editor. (Sorry to give a teaser link, but I work for a non-profit and we need to keep the doors open somehow)

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