In the corporate war on the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, bankers are nowhere to be found.
The American Bankers Association offers up no position about the controversial legislation that would ease restrictions on union-organizing activity. On the Web site of the Financial Services Roundtable, a link on labor policy issues passes visitors off to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to read polemics against the act's "card-check" union election rules and controversial federal arbitration for contract disputes.
But a small band of anti-union consultants is alerting bankers that they are more vulnerable to potential workforce organization than they realize. Worried about the proposed provisions in the bill, as well as growing public anger and job insecurity among low-level financial workers, they warn that unions are beginning to place banks in their cross-hairs by participating in corporate campaigns on ancillary issues, such as executive pay and consumer-protection initiatives. These corporate campaigns are a "very common and increasingly popular tool of organized labor," said Kevin Elliott, a senior vice president in the San Francisco office of the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton. The not-so subtle message, Elliott says, is that the campaigns would stop if the companies let employees unionize.
The proposed Free Choice Act is fully supported by the Obama administration, but it has a long way to go before it becomes law. The general consensus is that it will pass the House sometime later this year but that it faces a tougher road in the Senate.
Business groups say that the bill, as currently written, would create the most drastic change in labor laws in 60 years. Among other things, the legislation would allow workers to organize collective bargaining units by majority sign-up (instead of employer-contested elections), and would let government arbiters decide on contracts in the event of stalemates. Most banks are non-union, but if concentrations of bank employees at, say, call centers or large urban branch offices take advantage of these new rules to organize, there can be a substantial impact to not only a bank's salary and wage structure, but to their capital standing and merger prospects as well, experts say.
Union organizers typically set their sights on the likes of retailers and health care providers, but the financial crisis has set the stage for some aggressive campaigns against the financial-services sector.
Earlier this year, for example, the Service Employees International Union launched an email campaign against Bank of America over CEO Ken Lewis' approval of bonuses for Merrill Lynch executives. The protest encouraged activists to engage BofA employees with the talking point that tellers' average annual salary ($24,000) is less than what former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain famously spent on curtains in a $1.2 million office renovation.
Steven Lerner, an SEIU director, says the labor powerhouse ultimately wants bank workers to have a larger say in an institution's affairs. "We've agreed that part of fixing finance is regulating from above," he said. "But, as important, there needs to be regulation from below...in allowing workers to get a voice in the job."
For example, union-organized bank employees could negotiate compensation for selling sound products and services, he said, "versus having quotas and incentive systems that encourage, and force, people to sell products that don't work."
A unionized organized workforce would take a big bite out of bank profits, according to a report this year from Griffin Financial Group in Pennsylvania. Citing data from an unnamed unionized bank, the report estimates that the bank pays 7 to 8.5 percent more in salaries and benefits than its peers, and typically pays $50,000 to $100,000 more in legal expenses, which can double during years with contract talks. The report notes that another unionized bank, Ameriserv Financial in Johnstown, Pa., has suffered lower market valuation despite having a higher tangible common equity ratio, more regulatory capital and a better net interest margin than its peer group. Ameriserv's price-to-earnings ratio is only 7.36 percent, compared to a peer group average of 11.27 percent; and its price-to-tangible book value is less than half that of similar banks. Ameriserv officials declined to comment.
There have been signs that the legislation could be effectively neutered by the Senate, where conservative Democrats (including GOP-convert Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania) appear willing to compromise on card-check and arbitration. But that could depend on the political momentum the White House and unions have from the health care debate, and Elliot says there are other provisions that should make employers and bankers wary, such as limits on employer communication to workers during an organization campaign.
He's counseling banks on surveying workers now to discover what's eating them. That, more than savvy PR tactics, may be the best way approach. If employees "believe they have a clear understanding of role with bank, and they like that role they have, then [the bank is] less vulnerable."