February 20, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Low-wage bank tellers and associated support staffers forced onto public assistance and unable to afford even a box of diapers for their children – are still too frightened to organize for better working conditions, according to a worldwide coalition now seeking to unite the downtrodden U.S. workforce.
Around the world, bank tellers in countries From Malaysia to the United Kingdom collectively bargain for better pay and improved working conditions. But not here in America, where virtually none of the those comparable workers – more than a third of which exist at or below the poverty line – belongs to a union.
“There is an enormous amount of fear within the industry spread by bank executives to keep unions out and wages down,” said Pete Sikora, spokesperson for the Communications Workers of America [CWA].
The CWA is part of a coalition, along with Alliance for a Greater New York [ALIGN], New York Communities for Change [NYCC] and Make the Road Action Fund [MRAF], that has joined forces with UNI Finance Global Union in a new effort to improve working conditions for U.S. bank tellers, sales representatives, call center workers and office support staff.
UNI Finance Global Union is based in Nyon, Switzerland, and represents more than 20 million workers from over 900 trade unions in the fastest growing sectors in the world – skills and services.
Earlier this week, bank workers from 15 countries around the globe where UNI is active, joined the coalition at a special rally outside Citi Bank headquarters on Greenwich Street aimed at uplifting U.S. bank employees.
“Welcome to the capital of worldwide greed,” said Jonathan Westin, director, NYCC. “Down there on Wall Street they took our homes, they bankrupted our cities and they put all of us in debt. And now, just like workers in the fast food industry who are striking all over this country over poverty wages and terrible working conditions, workers in the banking industry – the most profitable industry in the world – are working in the same conditions.”
According to Christy Hoffman, UNI deputy general secretary, bank workers outside of this country belong to one of the most highly organized sectors in the world – something U.S. bank workers fail to realize.
“I think there’s perception here in the U.S. – including among workers – that unions are not for us,” Hoffman said. “That they are for blue collar workers. But, in fact, their pay is right down there with the mass of low-wage workers in the U.S.”
What’s more, banks that successfully employ unionized staff oversees, suddenly become decidedly union-averse when investing in the U.S. HSBC, for example, in unionized in the U.K., but not in the U.S.
Citi Bank, meanwhile, works with a unionized workforce in Brazil.
“There is no democracy without a union,” a Brazilian bank worker said on Greenwich Street.
According to a recently-released UNI Global Union report, Brazilian bank workers have won real wage increases every year since 2004 – in addition to obtaining a plethora of other gains including increased overtime pay, family health insurance, childcare allowances, extended paid maternity leave and more.
Unionized bank workers in other parts of the world share similar experiences, the report goes on to outline.
Back here in the U.S., however, where Brooklynite Robert Freeman began working as a part-time bank teller in 1995 when he was 18 and his starting salary was $8.50 an hour, the story has been much different
Back then, Freeman said that the starting pay, which went up to $9 an hour after six months, wasn’t bad for a kid his age – but that the pay rate hasn’t varied much across the board in the ensuing 20 years.
“Today, those wages are pretty much the same, which is a devastating wage for an adult,” Freeman said.
Now part of management, Freeman was shocked to learn that even top employees at his bank are still only earning annual salary increases of 15- and 20-cents an hour.
Contrast that with the astronomical salary boosts that Wall Street executives routinely rake in. Last year, for example, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon reportedly pocketed a nearly $20 million salary after being awarded an almost 75 percent pay hike – and that’s despite being fined $20 billion for regulatory violations.
Sikora went on to blast the huge subsidies non-unionized banking institutions like Citi Bank continue to enjoy, courtesy of both the City of New York and the federal government.
“The banks got bailed out, and we got sold out,” Sikora said. “These guys got what they needed – everybody else did not.”