Angered by a loan to a hotel builder that used nonunion workers, a national union launched an Internet assault Wednesday on Firstar Corp.
The attack, by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, included potshots at Firmco, Firstar's fund and investment unit, which handles the union's $2 billion of pension assets.
The Milwaukee banking company has a reputation on Wall Street for deft handling of mergers and taking advantage of cross-selling opportunities among its various businesses. But the blast from www.firstarwatch.com, the union's new Web site, illustrates that problems can spread among various units just as quickly as profits.
The central claim is that a $23 million loan to Adams Mark of St. Louis to develop a 1,600-room hotel in Chicago was "economically and morally reprehensible." And the site also asserts that the banking company has a history of unfair lending practices.
"We are trying to be a watchdog and provide customers with the full story on this bank," said Chris Bohner, a senior research director for the union. "We looked at this bank and realized that with all of their mergers and expansion, no one was watching what they were doing."
To back up the claim of unfair lending, the site provides a link to a Home Mortgage Disclosure Act site through which users can look up banks' lending history in various locations. The HMDA site, however, provides no specific evidence of problems at Firstar, which has passed Community Reinvestment Act scrutiny to gain approval for numerous mergers.
Firstar spokesman Steve Dale said the complaints were actually aimed at Adams Mark. "This is an issue that involves the union and a customer of the bank, and the union is attempting to place the bank in the middle as a pressure tactic." He declined to comment further.
The dispute between Firstar and the union began in April, when the banking company, through its Chicago subsidiary Mercantile Bank, provided a two-year loan to Adams Mark to build a new hotel.
Mr. Bohner said the union, aware of the hotel company's reputation for not hiring union employees, approached Firstar.
"We went to them and asked them for help. We wanted to educate them about what they were getting themselves into and the economics regarding the loan," he said. "We told them about our problem with Adams Mark, and we asked them to mediate the situation, and they politely responded that this was not an issue that they were concerned with."
When Firstar refused to step in, the union began its own investigation into Adams Mark, Mr. Bohner said. The probe uncovered settlements the hotel company made with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Justice Department after suits alleging racial discrimination had been filed, he said.
This raised concerns that there might be bigger problems at Firstar, Mr. Bohner said.
"We started digging and realized that there were a lot of problems at Firstar in the mutual fund and asset management side. We started talking to people and realized that there are a lot of problems with customer service," he said. "As banks get larger and larger, there is a lot of things that seem to fall by the wayside."
Mr. Bohner said the union's site will ensure that Firstar manages the union's assets wisely.
The site includes a list of five Firstar mutual funds - International Equity, Special Growth, Growth, Stellar Capital Appreciation, and Stellar Strategic Income - that it says have "been real dogs because of poor performance and/or high fees."
But Lori Appelbaum, an analyst with Goldman Sachs Group, said the Web site does not tell the full story of Firstar's fund performance.
The data used to trash the funds are out of date, she said. Last year "was a tough year, but 2000 has been great."
Firstar Funds manages 36 mutual funds. Its second-quarter assets under management rose 2.6% from a year earlier, to $17 billion.
Mr. Bohner said that the union is not advocating moving its pension funds out of Firstar's program. "Each plan will determine whether or not it should pull their funds from Firstar."
Many large banks, including Chase Manhattan, Wells Fargo, and Key Corp., have been targeted by Web sites whose sole purpose is to criticize them, but this is the first such site set up by a labor union, Ms. Appelbaum said.
"There are layoffs, there are lawsuits, and there are loans that are turned down," she said. "Banks turn away bad credit and make loans all the time. These are things that banks deal with. The difference here is the source."
The site will remain up and is intended to be a public service, Mr. Bohner said.
"Everyone is entitled to their point of view," he said. "We have a point of view, and Firstar has a point of view. With the Web site, people now have the opportunity to hear an opinion that, prior to this, they may not have known existed."