More than 100 workers at a Tom Steyer-founded bank have unionized with Communications Workers of America (CWA)—becoming the first in the financial industry to win collective bargaining rights in more than 40 years.
Workers at the bank unionized, in large part, to set a standard for the rest of the financial industry to be able to demand higher wages, benefits, and have the ability to speak out in an industry rife with workplace issues.
The newly unionized workers at the community development bank, Beneficial State Bank—which former 2020 presidential candidate Steyer founded in 2007 to provide loans to families, small businesses, and nonprofits across California, Washington, and Oregon—includes bank tellers, loan officers, clerks, and custodial staff. Steyer resigned as the bank’s CEO in July 2019.
“It’s very rare for workers in the financial industry to unionize,” Christina McAlvey, one of the newly unionized workers and a loan underwriter at a Beneficial State Bank branch in Portland, Oregon, told Motherboard. “But one of the reasons I wanted to unionize was because it’s a way for us to have a louder voice. If we have everyone at the table, we have a better chance to tell management what we want and why we want and that makes this a better place to bank.”
The banking industry has one of the lowest rates of union representation in any industry, at 1.1 percent. And it has an abysmal track record of discrimination, pay inequity, and unrealistic productivity quotas. One in three bank tellers relies on some form of government assistance. The median annual salary for bank tellers was $29,450 in 2019. Meanwhile profits at the biggest banks in the United States soared to record levels last year—thanks to a $38 billion Trump administration tax write-off. In one particularly egregious example from 2016, Well Fargo fired 5,300 employees who opened 2 million authorized credit card and deposit accounts under pressure to meet productivity quotas enforced by the bank.
“I came to Beneficial from Wells Fargo, and I’ve always thought it had been a good idea to unionize [my workplace],” said Desiree Jackson, an assistant vice president in Oakland who recently joined the union. “As our bank grows, I want to make sure we don’t grow in the direction that Well Fargo and Bank of America did. I want to build on what we have and make sure we keep moving in a direction that is true to our values.”
When workers announced their intention to unionize the bank, Beneficial State Bank immediately agreed to enter a neutrality agreement and then to voluntarily recognize the union.
“When CWA approached us, our organizations had actually already worked together, and we decided to let our employees decide for themselves. We wanted to make sure the CWA had access to them and that the decision to unionize was left up to workers,” Randell Leach, interim CEO of Beneficial State Bank, told Motherboard. “There’s absolutely the reputation in that unions and management are hostile to each other. Banks wield a lot of power and unions have always been a check to employer power and serve a very important role in the economy.”
“For me honestly, the benefits here have been generous, and management supported our right to unionize,” said McAlvey. “We’re doing what we’re doing to be the standard bearer for the industry. We want to be an example and hope other banks follow us.”