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Business News/ Economy / Unions Are So Hot Even Megabank Employees Are Trying to Join
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Unions Are So Hot Even Megabank Employees Are Trying to Join


Workers at two Wells Fargo branches are expected to hold elections to decide whether to unionize.

Sabrina Perez is trying to unionize the Wells Fargo branch where she works in Albuquerque.Premium
Sabrina Perez is trying to unionize the Wells Fargo branch where she works in Albuquerque.

Workers at two Wells Fargo bank branches are planning to launch unionization efforts Monday, shifting the attention of the resurgent labor movement to an industry that has historically been cool to it.

Employees in Albuquerque, N.M., and Bethel, Alaska, said they would notify the National Labor Relations Board that they plan to hold elections to decide whether to unionize. If they get enough votes, they could start the first union at a major bank in decades.

Labor organizers and unions have scored big victories lately. Amazon warehouse workers voted to unionize in New York last year, and hundreds of Starbucks shops have done the same. The United Auto Workers recently negotiated generous new contracts for employees at the large American carmakers.

“We would be foolish to not strike while the iron is hot," said Jessie McCool, a Wells Fargo compliance officer in St. Louis who has been a leader in the organizing effort.

Saul Van Beurden, CEO of Wells Fargo’s consumer banking division, said the company has “a deep commitment to invest in and support everyone who works at Wells Fargo."

He said the bank has significantly improved compensation and benefits for lower paid employees in recent years, with some changes made because of workers’ feedback.

The organizing employees and the union they are working with, the Communications Workers of America, face an uphill battle. Just 1.3% of finance-sector employees were part of a union last year, versus 6% of private-sector workers and 10% of the entire U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And unionizing is only the first step in getting management to agree to workplace changes. Employees at some companies where workers recently voted to unionize, including Starbucks, have since struggled to reach collective bargaining agreements with management.

Still, unionizing even a tiny slice of a megabank would be a major milestone. The largest bank to do so in recent memory was Beneficial State Bank in Oakland, Calif., in 2020. It is the 530th largest U.S. bank by assets. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo is the fourth largest, with almost $2 trillion in assets and over 200,000 employees.

The Albuquerque branch has eight nonmanagement workers, the union said. One of them, Sabrina Perez, said that she and her colleagues started talking seriously about unionization because they were being spread too thin.

Wells Fargo didn’t replace employees who departed the branch since the beginning of the pandemic, said Perez, who is a banker for affluent customers and has been at the company for about a decade. Bankers have had to put in double duty as tellers, and customers complained of long wait times, she said. When workers passed their concerns to management, they were told nothing would be done about it, she said.

“The executives don’t have to deal with the consequences of their decisions in a direct sense, but we do," Perez said.

Van Beurden said that in the last few years the bank has “reduced the required workdays for those in many of our branches, and increased staffing levels in branches where needed to help support our employees and ultimately our customers."

Major banks have long caught the eye of labor organizers, and the CWA has been trying to organize Wells Fargo workers for a few years.

Many of the CWA’s members work in the media, and the union’s involvement with bank employees might not seem like a natural pairing. The CWA said that the financial industry doesn’t fit neatly into any existing unions, and that it takes an interest in how the financialization of the economy has affected industries it represents. (The union that represents some Wall Street Journal employees is affiliated with the CWA.)

A 2016 sales scandal boosted Wells Fargo workers’ interest in a union, organizers said. Bank leaders had set lofty sales goals that branch workers couldn’t meet, and many resorted to creating fake accounts as a result. That led to widespread firings, and things are still tense.

Nick Weiner, who works for the CWA, said roughly 150 people joined an organizing call last week and interest has grown over the past month. Recently, employees have been distributing fliers to workers in branches and call centers. He hopes that if the first two branches unionize, other locations will follow.

“A missing element of getting Wells Fargo to repair its tattered reputation is to give workers a voice," Weiner said.

Wells Fargo has been preparing for the unionization effort as well. It recently hired a head of labor relations and trained managers on how to respond to union demands.

Some workers told the NLRB this year that the company tried to interfere with their efforts, sometimes by removing fliers or preventing workers from putting them up.

The branch in Bethel, Alaska, has five nonmanagement workers. Walker Sexton, who is one of them, said compensation was a big issue. He said that the bank increased hourly pay for some workers, but left his pay intact. His pay went from being above the middle of the pack to below, he said.

“It felt like a slap in the face," he said. He started at the bank four years ago making about $22 an hour in Anchorage, he said. His comparable pay is now about $25 an hour, though he now gets a cost-of-living adjustment for living in Bethel that bumps the hourly total up to about $38, he said.

Bethel is a remote city that is accessible to the rest of the state largely by plane. Sexton said a bag of grapes can cost $46 at the supermarket and that he pays about $2,000 a month for rent. He took a second job as a customer-service agent at the airport to make ends meet.

Van Beurden said that over the last four years, the company has increased median base salaries by 26% for those making less than $50,000. The company has also made healthcare more affordable for lower paid employees by decreasing the portion they pay of total costs, he said.

“We strongly believe everyone’s individual voice should be heard and that direct connection is the best way to continue to make progress in ensuring that our workplace helps our employees thrive," he said.

In addition to filing to hold elections, employees will give the bank a chance to voluntarily recognize the union. If the bank declines, they will proceed with the election. A majority of branch workers need to vote in favor for the union to be recognized.

Lauren Weber contributed to this article.

Write to Ben Eisen at

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