First time ever: Bank tellers fight to form a union
Santander bank employees in Dallas demand the right to organize a union. /UNI Global tellers’ union.

For the first time ever, bank tellers in the U.S. are organizing a union.

What’s more, they’re demanding that their employer, Santander Holdings, USA, stop its predatory practices and start serving its customers ethically. Too often Santander forces its workers to choose between ripping off their customers and losing their jobs.

Santander made $5 billion in profits last year from subprime auto and consumer loans and averages $555 million in profits each month from a growing number of banks in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and New England. It’s a subsidiary of Spain’s Banco Santander, the Euro Zone’s second-largest bank, with some 150,000 employees and with branches throughout Europe and South America. There are approximately 15,000 Santander workers in the U.S.

Although Santander rakes in billions, the median annual wage for bank tellers in the U.S. is about $26,400. One-third qualify for some sort of public assistance, such as food stamps or Medicaid.

And the salaries of higher level employees are often determined by whether they meet unrealistically high sales quotas, putting pressure on them to sell unwanted and sometimes expensive services to their customers.

The unionizing campaign by Santander workers is being led by the Committee for Better Banks (CBB) a coalition of bank workers and community and consumer advocates formed by the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

Over the past two months, Santander employees have demonstrated and taken over bank lobbies demanding that management not interfere with their union organizing drive.

In Boston, more than 50 bank workers and community leaders occupied Santander’s headquarters, causing security officers to lock down the building. The protesters raised signs saying Let’s Make a Union, Santander and Justice for Bank Workers.

They also delivered letters and petitions asking that bank management to respect a fair election for collective bargaining representation. Workers in Dallas and New York City did the same.

Meanwhile, during the week of February 21, bank workers around the world showed their support for U.S. workers.

In Brazil, bank employees opened their bank branches an hour late and held a rally at Santander’s Brazilian corporate headquarters. In Argentina, banks took turns closing for a day. In Italy, Portugal, Spain and Germany, delegations of Santander bank workers delivered letters of support to European banking officials.

Teresa Casertano, global campaigns manager for the CBB, explained to the Mic news service why foreign bank workers are eager to help their U.S. counterparts organize.

”In every other developed economy in the world,” Casertano said, “bank worker unions are the backbone of the labor movement. They’re strong unions with the highest union density … usually … every bank worker is covered.”

But when international banks come to the U.S., where organized labor has been systematically weakened, Casertano continued, they take advantage of the situation. Then, they want to spread non-union practices to workers in other countries where they do business.

And when U.S. banks go into other countries, “they want to act the way they act in the U.S. — in a nonunion environment,” Casertano explained.

That’s why, if the banking industry in the U.S. were unionized, it would help bank workers around the world protect and improve the wages and benefits they now have.

Santander is a key company to organize because it’s spreading so fast in the U.S. and around the world.

“But even as Santander’s profits grow,” a CWA statement says, “the bank faces increasing scrutiny of its unethical business practices.”

In just the last couple of years, Santander has been fined more than $1 billion for deceptive practices ranging from illegal overdrafts and overcharging black and Latino customers to illegally repossessing cars owned by members of the U.S. armed services who took out Santander loans and then were deployed overseas.

In July, Santander paid a $10 million fine after the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau charged it with deceptive trade practices. According to CFPB, Santander customers were given false information about the high cost of the bank’s overdraft protection service. In some cases, customers were enrolled in overdraft protection without their consent.

“When it comes to consumer banking’s more devious practices, like hawking off high-interest loans or subprime auto loans, it’s the salespeople and tellers who end up convincing hapless customers to sign on,” writes Jack Smith in Mic.

“The pressure on bank salespeople comes in the form of overbearing quotas and benchmarks that they have to meet for fear of losing their jobs. Santander workers wishing to remain anonymous told Mic that this can even mean hourly quotas that don’t give salespeople adequate time to explain the fundamental terms of the loans. The victims are often people of color and neighbors in their communities.”

Peggy Spencer, a Santander worker and CBB member in the Dallas area told the CWA “Our neighbors and communities trust us to help them – whether it’s with a loan or saving for their kid’s college tuition – but Santander executives choose to put us in an impossible position between providing for our families and doing what’s best for our customers.”

So as part of their union organizing drive Santander workers are demanding an end to the quotas.

They want to serve their communities with honesty and integrity.

“We’re taking our first major step to winning a voice on the job, improving working conditions and putting an end to discriminatory, deceptive practices that are holding back thousands of families.” Spencer said.


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.