Unions Get Snarky With Big Banks

As Bank of America continues its search for a new CEO, one of the nation's most powerful unions is giving it some unsolicited help: Since last week, the Service Employees International Union has been running online ads announcing a CEO vacancy at a "big bank" that may "reward failure with big $" and does not require a "basic understanding of the economy."

The ads, which the union says have attracted more than 300,000 clicks since Friday, are designed to pop up on some Google search results pages when the user searches the terms "Bank of America" and "BAC."

"What we're saying is they don't just need a new CEO," said Stephen Lerner, who directs the SEIU's finance reform campaign. "They need a new business model that isn't based on excessive risk, massive compensation for a few people and ripping off consumers."

Bank of America declined to comment on the ads, but accused the union of having "misrepresented Bank of America's relationship with its customers and its associates" in the past.

The SEIU's snarky salvo is one of many fired by unions at major banks this year. Earlier this week, the SEIU staged a protest at Goldman Sachs' Washington, D.C., headquarters, arguing that the bank's multi-billion dollar bonus pool could be used to prevent foreclosures.

In October, the SEIU teamed up with its former parent labor federation, the AFL-CIO, and other groups for a demonstration denouncing bank greed at the annual American Bankers Association conference in Chicago.

Last spring, the Teamsters Union and the SEIU fomented a successful shareholder campaign to strip retiring Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis of his title as bank chairman.

While the unions insist that their actions are aimed primarily at encouraging regulation to address problems facing the average American worker -- like foreclosure and dwindling retirement accounts -- some say the unions have another goal in mind: attracting and unionizing bank employees.

"If you're talking about the SEIU especially, I see this as their effort to take what is a popular, political issue and turn it to their advantage as it relates to their efforts to organize workers who are in these big banks who typically have not had exposure at any great extent to organized labor," said Dennis Kuhn, an associate professor of business law at Villanova University.

Big Bonuses Anger Rank-and-File Bank Employees

The shrinking of the U.S. manufacturing sector, a key source of union membership, helped drive down the total proportion of U.S. wage and salary workers belonging to unions to just over 12 percent from a high of more than 30 percent in the 1950s.

Unions have been able to make up some of the ground they lost in the manufacturing sector by appealing to service sector employees such as hotel workers and hospital staff. Kuhn said that bank employees could be next -- and furor over out-sized bonuses for top bank brass may be what brings rank-and-file bank employees into the union fold.

The unions could target everyone from bank tellers to those who process credit card applications, he said, because they're fed up with the disparity between their compensation and that of their company executives.

"You're likely to find a reasonably positive response from the people who are toiling in at the operations of a bank and not realizing much in the way of return of their efforts, at least not in their minds," Kuhn said.

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