Blue-collar unions are currently seizing the spotlight through the tangled web of the United Autoworkers strike against the Big Three automakers. Demands for 32-hour work weeks and 40% raises will do that, yet in another industry, white-collar organizing efforts persist by the Communication Workers of America (CWA).
Through the Committee for Better Banks-CWA initiative, the union made it one of their missions – and they have plenty of them – to organize “frontline” bank workers in call centers, banking branches, and corporate headquarters. The initiative’s perpetual big fish is the first major bank to face a CWA union drive: Wells Fargo.
This would ordinarily be a formidable challenge. Fewer than 1% of bank workers are unionized in the U.S., and until recently, banks enjoyed a four-decade union-free streak. New exceptions include small institutions like Beneficial State Bank, which saw CWA unionize 100 workers in 2021. Workers at credit unions like Lake Michigan Credit Union and Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union also organized with CWA.
The timing and the influence of this drive: Wells Fargo has been a CWA target for several years, even before the company’s most infamous scandal broke in 2016. That fiasco led to a revolving door of CEOs and Federal Reserve oversight after CWA-credited whistleblowers exposed a widespread fake account scandal. Although only 1000 workers out of 200,000+ people employed by Wells Fargo are part of the drive, the effort is widespread enough to stretch across 29 different locations.
It’s easy to suspect that if CWA were to be victorious in unionizing this large bank, the resulting news headlines could inspire union contagion to spread to workers at other financial institutions. Yet this has already happened: Beneficial State Bank workers cited the Wells Fargo situation while calling unionizing a proactive move.
Erosion of the relationship between worker and employer: The deck seems to be loaded against Wells Fargo. A veteran call center employee recently went on record to detail her rationale for organizing, and she pointed toward the bank’s scandals as the overriding reason. Some workers believe that CWA can clean up a toxic working environment with sales metrics so unrealistic that workers say they felt compelled to fabricate fake credit card accounts.
A Wells Fargo shareholder group recently called for taking a union-neutrality stance. The bank has declined to do so, and an internal document revealed executives are highly concerned. All of this may very well be part of a targeted campaign to make Wells Fargo look bad, but it still poses major problems in the short term. Wells Fargo has added labor relations expertise to its roster, but the wheels of organizing activity are fully in motion.
Unfortunately, Wells Fargo left itself open to union infiltration through a lack of transparency about some of their practices. They have a lot of hard work ahead to repair that gap. When workers lose trust in management, unions are all too happy to try and fill that void. Understandably, other banks are nervous about these developments and whether they might open the floodgates to an industry. It’s a cautionary tale to maintain trust and transparency with workers to prevent unions from using that as an opportunity for putting down roots.