As the nation's biggest union-affiliated bank deepens its commitment to labor and progressive causes, other labor-oriented banks are charting different courses.
Amalgamated Bank of New York is showing no signs of backpedaling from its labor origins. The $3.7 billion-asset union-owned bank, which continues to offer strike loans, made news earlier this year by raising its minimum wage to $15 and urging other banks to do the same.
Other banks with close ties to unions, however, are moving in an opposite direction, courting more business customers. The timing makes sense as the economy improves and most banks are showing meaningful increases in commercial lending.
Amalgamated Bank of Chicago, which was once operated by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, is keen on originating more business loans, said Robert Wrobel, the $800 million-asset bank's chairman and chief executive.
"We want to broaden our base [and] refresh who we are and what we do," Wrobel, said. "Our focus is not just on small business, but general business banking and corporate trust. We are a full-service commercial banking institution."
United Business Bank in Oakland, Calif., which had been known as United Labor Bank until late last year, has also been taking steps to be more business friendly.
"It is part of the change process," said Malcolm Hotchkiss, the $378 million-asset company's chief executive. "It allows us to continue serving labor and move into small business lending."
In the case of Chicago's Amalgamated, its commercial push comes at a time when it is making a number of notable changes. The bank, which sold its long-time headquarters on State Street earlier this year, moved into a building on La Salle Avenue over Labor Day Weekend. The sale and relocation, which netted the bank $35 million, also highlights its evolution as a commercial lender, Wrobel said.
"State Street served us well for many years, but it is in a retail part of town," Wrobel said. "La Salle Avenue is in the heart of the Financial District."
Along with the new space, Amalgamated plans to refresh its identity with a new logo and tagline: "Professional Performance. Personal Attention." The bank is also planning to launch a mobile app and redesign its website.
"We're trying to get the word out" Wrobel said. "When you bank with Amalgamated you are talking to people that make quick decisions. … You're not going to be handed off."
In California, United Business has four business lenders, with responsibilities divided among Small Business Administration lending, commercial and industrial, commercial real estate and construction lending.
The bank is planning to hire more lenders, and it is considering adding remittance processing and wealth management to its list of services as it gains more commercial clients, Hotchkiss said.
Since its name change in December, United Business' commercial lending has increased by 7%, to $156 million, though Hotchkiss said he wants to book more loans. "I'm never pleased, but I am pleased with that progress," he said.
Though they make up a tiny slice of the industry today, labor banks once were a significant force. The International Association of Machinists opened the first labor bank — Mt. Vernon Savings Bank of Washington D.C. — in 1920. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers followed closely, opening Cooperative National Bank a few months later.
Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers founded Amalgamated Bank of Chicago in 1922 and Amalgamated Bank of New York a year later. By the late 1920s, more than 50 labor-owned banks were in operation.
The number of labor-owned and labor-affiliated banks has been in steady decline in recent decades. Last year, Radius Bank, which was founded by carpenters' unions in Massachusetts and New York, changed its name from First Trade Union Bank and conducted an initial public offering.
For its part, New York's Amalgamated is showing no signs of aggressively moving away from its union roots. And Bank of Labor in Kansas City, Mo., also maintains a high profile in labor and progressive causes. Newton Jones, Bank of Labor's chief executive, also serves as president of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the bank's union owner.
Chicago's Amalgamated and United Business, meanwhile, are hopeful that they can still keep their union-oriented clients despite their commercial pushes.
"We've built a national reputation with our labor relationships," Wrobel said. "It is a great door opener. It takes us one phone call to make a connection. … It's a terrific niche. How do you replace all that at this stage of the game?"