It’s been ten years since the excesses of the financial sector caused a global meltdown so massive that some pundits predicted the end of our economy as we know it. Now, a decade on, we’ve seen some paltry moves to rein in the extravagance of Wall Street. But one often-forgotten group of people working in banking have the information — and the motivation — to tame the beasts of finance.
A discussion earlier this year at the Solidarity Center in Washington, D.C. brought together bank workers, organizers, and academics to make the case that the collective power of workers at banks like Santander and Wells Fargo has widespread potential for protecting not only employees, but consumers. As the panelists laid out, there there are many reasons why, along with appropriate legislation and enforcement, organizing bank workers could play a sensible role in regulating banks from below.
Bank workers, after all, are often the best informed about the risky practices of their employers. It was Wells Fargo employees who sounded the alarm on their shady sales quota practices in 2016. Workers, organized with the Committee for Better Banks, a campaign from the Communication Workers of America and community groups, led the charge against their employer as part of their effort to win better pay and working conditions.
Workers are also among the first to feel the impact of corrupt banking practices. The stress of predatory lending practices, curved grading of employees, and intense quotas can even leave a physical toll on workers. Wells Fargo employee Meggan Halvorson spoke of seeking treatment for the anxiety and migraines after working at the job, only to hear from her doctor that those symptoms were par for the course for bank employees.
U.S. bank workers have something quite important working in their favor in their attempts to unionize: widespread global solidarity. In fact, as panelists were keen to point out, the industry is heavily unionized across the globe — excluding, of course, the United States.
Molly McGrath, a panelist from the AFL-CIO, said almost a third of the globally important banks were based in the United States. McGrath noted that the countries with unionized bank workers saw less shady bank practices than in the U.S. But, as other panelists noted, the lack of unionization in the United States weakened the collective power of unions around the world.
The panelists recognized that there were some massive difficulties to overcome in their drive to unionize workers. Shannon Bade, an organizer with the Committee for Better Banks, said she had to knock on hundreds of doors in the earlier stages of the campaign to find workers willing to speak out, noting a strong fear of reprisal among workers.
But the widespread benefits of the campaign mean that there are also opportunities to work across interests and build coalitions that would similarly benefit from a better-regulated banking sector. The campaign considers itself a prime private-sector example of Bargaining for the Common Good.
The idea’s been used in the public sector to bring broader concerns into union negotiations in an effort to improve collective bargaining contracts for both workers and their communities. Given the wide reach of the financial sector — long a target of affordable housing groups, environmental groups, and consumer advocates — the workers have natural allies in their fight for justice.
In the years since the financial collapse, banks like Wells Fargo have been at the center of scandal after scandal. Legislation and enforcement are crucial in protecting consumers from bad financial practices, but expanding the notion of who gets harmed by these practices offers up a key ally in the fight. The collective power of bank workers offers promise as a next step for both defending workers and addressing the economic and political power banks hold over communities around the world.
Negin Owliaei is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies and a co-editor at Inequality.org.