A small California bank is unionizing. Here's what it means.

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In a historic vote that may be hard to replicate elsewhere, workers at a small California bank have elected to form a union.

The result, which was certified this week, means that 113 employees of Beneficial State Bank will become members of the Communication Workers of America. The new bargaining unit will include tellers, custodians, loan underwriters and relationship bankers, according to Erin Mahoney, an organizing coordinator for the union.

Bank workers in other countries are frequently unionized, but collective bargaining remains a rarity in the United States. Some U.S. credit unions have unionized workforces, as does Amalgamated Bank in New York, which was founded by a labor union.

Supporters of the organizing campaign at Beneficial State said that it is the first successful unionization effort at a U.S. bank in decades.

“I want Beneficial State to be the example and a leader for all other banks in the U.S. to say, ‘This is how you should treat people,’” said Christina McAlvey, an Oregon-based employee of the bank.

But unionization will likely be a bigger challenge at many other banks than it was at Beneficial State.

The Oakland, Calif.-based bank was founded by Tom Steyer, the billionaire who recently ended his Democratic presidential campaign, and his wife, Kat Taylor. Taylor, who recently stepped down as Beneficial State’s CEO, has said that the bank aims to produce social justice and environmental well-being while also demonstrating financial sustainability.

The push to organize Beneficial State Bank employees began late last year after the Communication Workers of America approached the bank’s management about the possibility of representing workers, and the bank welcomed the offer.

The bank agreed to remain neutral during the run-up to the vote. Union organizers said that their proposal ultimately garnered 63% support from workers who were eligible to vote.

Beneficial State is a $1 billion-asset bank with more than a dozen branches in California, Oregon and Washington state. The bank, which serves consumers and small businesses, reported net income of $2.49 million last year.

Beneficial State said Monday that it has long supported unions, and that it hopes the vote sets a strong example for the rest of the banking industry.

“All too often the balance of power is tipped unfairly toward the employer,” the bank’s interim CEO, Randell Leach, said in a press release. He added that “organizations that are primarily focused on maximizing shareholder value may pursue activities that are exploitative of people and natural resources.”

During collective bargaining, compensation and benefits could be the subject of negotiations. But Beneficial State says that it already pays 150% of the living wage for all regions in which it operates, plus a comprehensive benefits package to every employee that exceeds the industry standard.

Sales goals, a hot topic in the wake of the fake-accounts scandal at Wells Fargo, are another potential topic for negotiation.

“I think this is historic in that workers will have an opportunity to sit down and have a voice in those metrics,” Mahoney said, “and have the opportunity to affect them.”

The Committee for Better Banks, a coalition that includes bank workers, labor organizations and consumer advocacy groups, has been tapping into employee dissatisfaction with sales pressure in an effort to organize workers at numerous U.S. banks. A unionization effort at Santander Consumer USA in Dallas, so far unsuccessful, has focused on concern over debt collection tactics that workers consider aggressive.

Patrick Creaven, a Wells Fargo employee who is a member of the Committee for Better Banks, argued in a recent interview that banks should view employees as partners rather than resisting their efforts to unionize.

“For banks to have a long-term future, they need bank workers to be part of the process,” he said. “We’re trying to help. We’re the ones that are making the bank better.”

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