Bloomberg Law
Free Newsletter Sign Up
Login
BROWSE
Bloomberg Law
Welcome
Login
Advanced Search Go
Free Newsletter Sign Up

Big Banks Eye Potentially ‘Contagious’ Wells Fargo Union Push

Dec. 8, 2022, 10:00 AM

Wells Fargo & Co. has been at the center of some of the biggest banking scandals of the last decade, but it’s facing a new challenge within its labor force that is being watched across the financial services industry.

Workers at the country’s fourth-largest bank are pushing to unionize with the Communications Workers of America, a complicated process that began in November 2021 and that, if successful, could reshape working conditions at Wells Fargo and spark workers at other large US banks to push for collective bargaining.

“It’s not lost on anyone that if workers at Wells Fargo are successful, it’s going to inspire folks at other banks and financial institutions to see what’s possible at their own workplace,” said Nick Weiner, the senior campaign lead at the Committee for Better Banks, an advocacy group that is helping to guide the Wells Fargo union campaign.

Union campaigners face a steep hill in trying to get recognition at Wells Fargo’s more than 5,000 branches, call centers, and other facilities across the US. The logistics are difficult and there are questions about how tellers, wealth management advisers, anti-money laundering analysts, call center customer care workers, and other employees with different roles would fit into a collective bargaining unit.

Also, big banks in the US have never been unionized, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting that only 1.2% of workers in finance were represented by a union in 2021. Union membership throughout the US economy overall slipped to 10.3% in 2021, the BLS reported.

But there are growth areas for unions in nontraditional employment, driven in large part by the Covid-19 pandemic’s tight labor market and safety concerns. Graduate students around the country and workers in industries like journalism have also joined unions in growing numbers.

And companies like Apple Inc.'s retail outlets, Starbucks Corp., and Amazon.com Inc. are seeing increased union activity.

Workers have begun to express interest in organizing in areas that “they never dreamed of beforehand,” said William Gould IV, chairman of the National Labor Relations Board during the Clinton administration, and now a professor emeritus at Stanford University Law School.

While in its early stages, the unionization effort is being watched closely by lawmakers and the industry.

“We’re going to keep holding Wells Fargo accountable and defending its workers’ legal right to unionize, including by continuing to hold our annual big bank oversight hearings,” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a statement to Bloomberg Law.

A win at Wells Fargo would give workers at other banks a model to follow, said Gould.

“This can be contagious,” he said. “It’s more likely that workers in comparable jobs and industries say this is something we should consider” once a similar company organizes.

Limited Experience

Despite some organizing efforts, the US financial services sector has not typically been home to union labor, unlike in Europe, South America, and other parts of the world.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters attempted to organize stockbrokers in Chicago in 1970, and some banks had unions prior to a wave of consolidation in the 1970s and ‘80s.

The CWA has seen some success at small financial institutions over the last few years.

In March 2020, workers at Beneficial State Bank, a $1.5 billion bank with 13 branches in California, Oregon, and Washington, voted to unionize. Beneficial—registered as a B Corporation required to focus on social and environmental issues and counting former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, on its board—voluntarily recognized the union.

Workers at Rochester, N.Y.-based Genesee Co-Op Federal Credit Union unanimously approved forming a union in January.

Those two institutions have bargaining units of at most around 100 people and a handful of branches in small geographic areas.

New Ballgame

Unionizing customer-facing and other workers at Wells Fargo, which has branches and other offices in 36 states and as many as 150,000 potential members, is a different ballgame.

“The bigger the geographical spread, the more different types of jobs that fall into a union campaign, the more challenging it is to speak to the workers directly or speak to their concerns,” said Matthew Bodie, a University of Minnesota Law School professor and former National Labor Relations Board attorney.

Workers at big banks first started coming together to address issues arising out of the 2008 financial crisis with the creation of the Committee for Better Banks in 2014. But only recently have those conversations turned to unionizing.

The epic scandals at Wells Fargo—including the creation of millions of fake accounts that resulted in billions of dollars in fines and four different CEOs leading the San Francisco-based bank—made the bank a prime target for organizers.

Wells Fargo employees say a major driver of the fake accounts scandal was unrealistic sales goals set by bank management, including an “eight is great” campaign that attempted to sign customers up for eight different products at the bank.

A union would theoretically be able to negotiate sales goals, or at least defend employees who pushed back against them.

Worker Grievances

The sales targets are top of mind for Meghan Merez, a lead customer resolution representative at a Wells Fargo call center in Hillsboro, Ore., outside of Portland, where she’s worked for seven years.

“If the bankers were unionized, this never would’ve happened. So many people lost their jobs because management refused to listen to them,” Merez, 26, told Bloomberg Law.

Other concerns expressed by Merez and her Wells Fargo colleagues would look similar to workers at other companies.

Merez and others at the Hillsboro call center recently filed an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Wells Fargo was paying new employees $5 more per hour for the same job that she and her colleagues already did.

She also claims that workers are required to log into their systems five minutes before their shifts technically begin without getting paid for those extra minutes.

Kelly Parkinson, a senior financial relationship adviser at a Wells Fargo call center in Salt Lake City, filed his own unfair labor practice charge alleging that he was stripped of his right to work from home due to his union activism. Wells Fargo declined to comment when the charges were filed.

Parkinson also wants to see basic changes like a more permanent right to work remotely and an increase in pay for his coworkers.

They work “just as hard as I do even though I’m a financial adviser and I make a very livable wage,” he said.

Complaints among workers can often lead to union drives, said Anne Marie Lofaso, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law and a former NLRB appellate attorney.

“All unions start with a grievance. That’s why you saw unions increase in strength during Covid,” she said.

While overall union representation remains low in the US, the number of workers petitioning for recognition of unions is growing.

In fiscal 2022, workers filed 2,072 petitions for recognition and 1,363 elections were held, according to the NLRB. Workers won 1,041 of those elections, the NLRB said.

That’s a jump from the 1,269 petitions for recognition filed in fiscal 2021, which included union wins in 663 of 862 elections, according to the NLRB.

Two Paths

There are essentially two options for organizers of such a large workplace with such diverse potential members: attempt to set up a single unit across the entire bank, or organize on a branch by branch, call center by call center basis, akin to the effort to unionize individual Starbucks stores, which happened rapidly and to great success over the past year.

So far, Wells Fargo organizers haven’t announced a specific strategy.

“It may be a combination of things of really helping workers pursue what makes sense for them,” Weiner of the Committee for Better Banks said.

Wells Fargo workers have set up a private Facebook group and have been meeting remotely to set up a common mission statement, discuss strategy, and simply discover that they have the same concerns about issues like pay and staffing, Weiner said.

They’re also planning a regular, 15-minute podcast that workers can listen to on their off time. Wells Fargo workers are also developing a series of TikTok videos that are expected to be released soon, he said.

Organizers will find it easier to create a community of interests with co-workers in a local branch than nationwide, so getting recognition of a local bargaining unit is going to be easier, Bodie said.

A branch-by-branch strategy also can generate momentum, said Mark Gaston Pearce, the executive director of the Workers’ Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center and a former NLRB chairman during the Obama administration.

If workers at one branch see workers at a nearby one win, they may feel more confident pushing for a union at their workplace.

“An employer would view it as a domino theory, whereas a union would view it as an incremental success strategy,” Pearce said.

Localized campaigns may be about to get underway. Merez says she’s preparing a demand letter to pass around to coworkers before submitting it to supervisors at the Hillsboro call center that would seek higher wages and make the desire for collective bargaining official.

“We want them to know that we’re trying to bargain here for better wages,” she said.

Long Odds

While a localized campaign is more likely to succeed, getting every branch organized would be difficult, said Jeffrey Hirsch, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and former NLRB appellate attorney.

“The odds are rarely in a union’s favor, and particularly if an employer really wants to fight,” Hirsch said.

Wells Fargo has already indicated that it will oppose a union drive.


CEO Charles Scharf told Democratic lawmakers at the Senate Banking and House Financial Services Committees in September that he believes Wells Fargo “should have a direct relationship with our employees.”

The bank said in a Nov. 30 statement to Bloomberg Law that workers are “encouraged to raise concerns and feedback” to their managers, Wells Fargo’s employee relations department, and on a confidential phone line to report ethics violations.

“We are dedicated to investing in our people; advancing diversity, equity and inclusion; and ensuring that Wells Fargo continues to be a great place to work,” the bank said in a statement.

Wells Fargo can take steps to oppose the union drive, including hiring outside counsel and other consultants to try to convince workers that a union isn’t right for them.

Lawyers can also aggressively challenge everything from bargaining unit size—they’re likely to push for larger geographic units because they’re easier to challenge—to the makeup of potential membership, Bodie said.

And not every vote at every outlet will be successful, as the Starbucks example shows, Pearce said.

There are some restrictions on what Wells Fargo can do because of the tight regulatory regime it operates under.

Organizers have alleged that Starbucks closed stores that were hotbeds of union activities. Wells Fargo wouldn’t be able to do that because regulators, including the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, would have to approve branch closures.

And any moves to reduce headcount or other tactics could get a second look from regulators if they deem them to be a risk to the safety and soundness of the bank, Pearce said.

The OCC, which oversees Wells Fargo’s national banking unit, declined to comment.

A union campaign can take months from the time of the declaration that workers want to organize until a company either provides recognition or an election is completed. Organizing a company the size of Wells Fargo in an industry like banking that has so far avoided organized labor could take years to complete, if the campaign is successful at enough branches and call centers.

Weiner said he hopes the official effort starts soon, adding that “there is a lot of energy.”

“We’re optimistic,” he said.

Disclosure: Bloomberg Law employees are represented by a CWA affiliate.

To contact the reporter on this story: Evan Weinberger in New York at eweinberger@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Roger Yu at ryu@bloomberglaw.com