Unions Get Snarky With Big Banks

Questions abound whether big labor will urge bank workers to form new unions.

ByALICE GOMSTYN <br/> ABC NEWS Business Unit
November 17, 2009, 4:56 PM

Nov. 18, 2009 &#151; -- 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.

Legislation pending before Congress should further boost any union efforts to organize bank employees. The Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier for workers to organize unions, Kuhn said.

"You have a very hospitable political environment coupled with an issue that garners headlines from every newspaper," he said. "So this is what they're working to exploit."

But the country's two major union groups, the AFL-CIO and SEIU, are playing coy when it comes to the question of unionizing bank employees.

Lerner told ABCNews.com that banks should not "stand in the way" if workers want to form unions, but stopped short of saying that the SEIU, which last year was reported to have considered bank unionization, would lead such efforts.

"The SEIU thinks that we cannot have an economic recovery unless workers have a right to form unions. (Then) we can start raising wages so we can stimulate the economy so people make a decent living -- part of that for bank workers and all workers is restoring the right to form a union and we don't think banks should stand in the way if workers want to unite together to organize a union to make their lives better," Lerner said.

Bank Unions: A Red Herring?

Daniel Pedrotty, head of the AFL-CIO's office of investment, called the unionization question a "red herring."

"It's a way to try to confuse the issue," he said.

Part of the reason the AFL-CIO is involved in demonstrations to encourage bank regulation, he said, is because bank investments directly affect current union members: Trillions of dollars of union members' pension and retirement funds are invested in financial products, he said, including stock in the big banks.

"We're a labor federation -- yes, we're about organizing," he said. "We're about even more than that. We're about an economy that works for everyone."

Union experts say the unions' broader banking-related goals -- like fighting foreclosures and providing consumers more protection against bank fees -- fit with the unions' history of social activism.

The unions have staged "plenty of protests about the war, environmental issues, politics. There have been plenty of instances where they've called for regulation," said Philip Dine, the author of the 2008 book, "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence."

They were critical, he added, in helping President Obama win the 2008 election.

"Labor waged its biggest political effort" to help Obama get elected, he said.

Right now, unionization at U.S. banks is rare and the few banks that do have collective bargaining agreements with employees may be at a disadvantage to their peers: A March study by the investment banking firm Griffin Financial Group reported on one unionized bank that had salary and benefits costs that were 7 percent to 8.5 percent higher than its peers and also spent more on legal and human resources expenses.

The pushback they would get from banks may make unions think twice about organizing there, some say.

"Banks will fight tooth and nail to keep unions out," said Lowell Turner, professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University. "Unions have to be strategic about where they put their organizing resources."

Squeezing the Employer to Start a Union

If unions do decide to organize bank employees, the demonstrations could be a good start.

"One of the things you sometimes see with activity like this is sometimes it is the beginning of signals of a corporate campaign," said Kevin Elliott, a senior vice president in charge of the labor practice at the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton.

Through corporate campaigns, he said, unions seek "to injure the reputation of the employer" as a means of pressuring them to allow unionization.

"The union squeezes the employer," Elliott said. "The employer says 'What do we have to do make this stop.' The union says, 'Give us more flexibility with organizing your workers.'"

Elliott said that while that's not something he sees happening with unions and banks right now, employers always have to be on guard for it. Banks may have to decide whether unions are, indeed, seeking to organize their employees or are just seeking to gain attention for their causes.

"If it's the former, you'd better get serious (and) make sure you're not going to be vulnerable," he said. "If it's the latter, then it is what it is."

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