Labor unions are going after bank workers with a newfound optimism.

Long stifled in their bank-organization attempts, unions are playing the merger card, pointing to the massive layoffs from large-bank consolidations that have brought an unprecedented level of job insecurity.

"You only have to pick up a newspaper to know what your future is," said Thomas R. McNutt, president of Local 400 of United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Washington, which is trying to unionize Riggs National Bank in the nation's capital. "Anyone who works for a bank and thinks they have job security today either doesn't read a newspaper or is just foolish."

To be sure, Mr. McNutt's union still has a big battle ahead. And nationwide, few banks have been unionized - and no one union is dominant.

But union organizers are not deterred and view banking as especially fertile territory.

"I see a resurgence in unions, especially in this day where the banks just want to make more money," said Paul F. Bayush, president of Local 8204 of United Steelworkers, which represents workers at the U.S. Bank subsidiary of Johnstown, Pa.-based USBancorp.

"Every employee is concerned that you're going to be bought," Mr. Bayush said. "It's that type of atmosphere that we live in."

Officials of Mr. McNutt's union in Washington are warning workers at the $4.5 billion-asset Riggs of impending layoffs, due to either an acquisition or a cost-cutting program. Only a union, they say, can prevent the workers from being abandoned by the company.

"If the cost-cutting doesn't get you, the takeover will," say union brochures, underscoring "takeover." "If you want loyalty, get a dog. If you want job protection, get a union."

Riggs officials have declined to comment.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, one of many unions targeting banking and other service industries, says its efforts are paying off. Since it began contacting Riggs employees in November and launched a toll- free information hotline, more than 100 workers have expressed some interest. Some have attended preliminary meetings.

Under federal labor laws, the union needs the signatures of at least 30%, or 489, of Riggs' 1,630 employees before it can petition the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election. But Mr. McNutt said his group prefers to get more than 50%.

Such campaigns are likely to spread to other parts of the country, union officials say, as they try to make up for membership losses they have suffered at manufacturing companies.

Labor officials say their strongest support is likely to come from those who toil behind the scenes at bank operations centers, whose jobs are threatened by technology and who might be viewed as more expendable than people who have direct contact with customers.

After its merger with Chemical Banking Corp., the new Chase Manhattan Corp., for example, plans to lop off about 12,000 jobs. Wells Fargo & Co.'s acquisition of First Interstate Bancorp should result in 4,000 to 5,000 pink slips.

Deloitte & Touche and other consulting firms have estimated bank work- force reductions in the hundreds of thousands within the next few years, with 20% to 50% of branches to be closed.

"In every deal you do, you spend about as much time determining cost-cuts as you did analyzing the banks before, because that's such a material part of the analysis," said Chris Hargrove, vice president of Professional Bank Services, a bank consulting firm in Louisville.

As a result, "being a unionized shop is not desirable for management," said Robert Listfield, principal of the A.T. Kearney consulting firm in Boston. "It may limit the flexibility to deal with staff during these changing times. You may have to negotiate around seniority rather than skills."

The situation is a dramatic reversal for bank employees, who in the past never felt the same need as factory workers for job protection. Salaries were never high for tellers and other customer service representatives and voluntary turnover rates tended to be high, but layoffs were few and far between.

"People felt they were being well cared for and had a job for life," said Jon Doukas, vice president of Professional Bank Services. "Therefore, to rock the boat is not the style."

Most past attempts to unionize banks haven't succeeded. The few that did typically entailed long battles with recalcitrant management, such as one that ran 12 years at BankAmerica Corp.'s subsidiary, Seattle-First National Bank.

Elsewhere, managements have maintained good relations with unionized work forces. USBancorp even negotiated a new four-year union contract last fall with United Steelworkers of America, while Hubco in northern New Jersey reached an open-shop agreement with its union after an eight-day strike in 1990.

Currently, the food and commercial workers union is targeting only Riggs, but "once the word is on the street, I'm sure we'll be contacted by other bank employees and we'll respond to whatever interest is shown," said Donovan McClure, a spokesman for Local 400 of United Food and Commercial Workers.

Given the ingrained anti-union culture, many bankers and other industry observers remain skeptical about whether unionization efforts will succeed now.

"Unions are having a difficult time protecting their members in industries where they've been strong," said John Adam Kanas, president and chief executive of North Fork Bancorp, Mattituck, N.Y. "So I'd find it a stretch to worry about unions' getting a dominant role in industries where they've never even existed. However, I've been wrong before."

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