Sep 18, 2023 - Economy

Why Wells Fargo is the only big bank where workers are trying to unionize

Illustration of a piggy bank on a protest sign.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

For at least a decade, labor organizers have tried to make inroads at the nation's banks, but Wells Fargo is the only big one where workers are actually trying to unionize.

Why it matters: Worker efforts trace back to the bank's recent scandals and demonstrate how a business's failures can ripple out to its employees and culture in the long term.

State of play: About 1,000 bank employees — from call center workers to software engineers and compliance officers — are trying to unionize with help from the Communications Workers of America.

  • Workers want better pay and conditions — including improved staffing levels and the ability to work remotely.
  • Others say there still need to be improvements in the culture that led to the now-infamous fake accounts scandal, where employees were so pressured to sell that they opened millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts for customers.
  • "People are ticked off for a lot of reasons," said Nick Weiner, a CWA senior campaign leader.

Driving the news: Three bank employees filed unfair labor practice charges against Wells at the National Labor Relations Board, the workers and union told Axios.

  • They say the bank is preventing organizers from distributing flyers about the union and retaliating against unionizing workers in performance reviews.
  • The latest filings join six other open complaints filed against Wells Fargo, including one that may lead to formal charges from the NLRB, and another where a Texas worker alleges they were fired in retaliation for organizing.

The other side: "We respect employees' rights under the National Labor Relations Act and our policies do not prohibit employees from discussing wages, benefits and terms of employment, or otherwise engaging in collective activity," Laurie Kight, a bank spokesperson, said in a statement.

  • "When our employees have concerns, we want to hear directly from them to understand their perspectives and determine how we can work together to improve our workplace."

How it started: Bank workers first started organizing informally over concerns about sales pressure back in 2015 — before the fake account scandal broke to the public.

  • Workers reached out to the Committee for Better Banks, an organizing group, which put them in touch with CWA, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and members of Congress, Weiner said.
  • Over the next few years, workers continued to try talking to management about concerns, but by 2020 or so, they felt they weren't being heard, per Weiner.

"I was at Wells Fargo from the start. I was told to sell, sell, sell," said Trevor Brown, who's worked for the bank in Phoenix for 10 years. He filed a charge at the NLRB last week after the union flyers he was putting up were repeatedly torn down.

  • He'd long been speaking up for colleagues, arguing for better wages, and speaking out about issues he saw. Signing up for the union was a "no-brainer."
  • Brown worked on the team that dealt with customer service calls from those who'd had fake accounts opened in their name. Though some practices have changed since then, the culture hasn't, he said.
  • (In a letter accompanying the bank's 2022 annual report, Wells CEO Charlie Scharf said past practices were "unacceptable," things are "dramatically different" now, and the bank's been on a multi-year journey to change the culture.)

Reality check: The organizing workers make up a tiny fraction of the bank's 238,000-employee workforce. Actually getting a union certified is going to be a huge battle — especially across such a diverse range of job types — and it's not at all clear they can pull it off.

  • Only a few banks have managed to unionize in the U.S. — all small. Overall, about 1% of those in the financial industry are in unions.

What's next: Wells workers told Axios they believe in the bank and they'd like to make it better for themselves and their customers.

  • In the meantime, Brown said, "I keep putting flyers up."
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