Wells Fargo employees ballot for union recognition

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Customers of Wells Fargo support workers unionisation – the bank has been mired in scandal since 2016

In a remarkable series of events, Wells Fargo employees from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Bethel, Alaska, are spearheading the bank’s first-ever union elections.

This historic move towards unionisation, under the banner of the Communications Workers of America’s Wells Fargo Workers United (WFWU), indicates a significant paradigm shift within the US banking sector, traditionally known for its minimal union presence.

The employees’ petition, lodged with the US National Labour Relations Board (NLRB), is notable for being the first of its kind at Wells Fargo and a rarity in major US banks for many years. It highlights a growing call among financial services workers for increased representation and reform.

Sabrina Perez, a Senior Premier Banker at the Albuquerque branch, emphasised the need for employee representation. ‘We aim to challenge Wells Fargo’s detrimental culture and pave the way for a future where both workers and customers are accorded the respect they deserve,’ she stated, asserting their determination to be the first of many within the organisation to seek union elections.

This push for unionisation follows the 2016 scandal involving fake accounts at Wells Fargo. The incident, where employees, particularly those affiliated with the Committee for Better Banks, played a key role in exposing the bank’s wrongful practices, has since fuelled a rising tide of support for organisation within the bank. Remarkably, over a thousand workers have signed the WFWU support pledge in just the past fortnight.

Walker Sexton, a Personal Banker from the Bethel branch, shared his perspective: ‘Despite Wells Fargo’s immense profits, many of us struggle financially, often needing a second job to make ends meet. We, alongside our customers, deserve better.’

However, the unionisation efforts have encountered opposition, with allegations of Wells Fargo engaging in illegal practices to thwart union activities, including intimidation and retaliation against organising workers.

In a statement of support, Angelo Di Cristo, Head of UNI’s Finance sector, said: ‘Wells Fargo workers are fighting for what banking employees globally already possess: a voice in the workplace and the benefits of collective bargaining. UNI Finance unions worldwide stand in solidarity with them, for their battle for fair wages and improved conditions is our battle too.’

Simultaneously, the landscape of labour in the United States is witnessing a seismic shift as workers across various sectors increasingly entertain the idea of a general strike.

This emerging trend, spearheaded by influential union leaders like Shawn Fain of the United Auto Workers (UAW), reflects a growing discontent with economic inequalities and corporate practices.

The UAW has achieved significant milestones in recent contract negotiations with Detroit’s three major automakers, securing substantial benefits for union members. These achievements include considerable pay raises, enhanced benefits, and the right to strike over plant closures, setting a new precedent in the union’s 88-year history.

Under Fain’s leadership, the UAW has embarked on an ambitious plan to extend its influence beyond its traditional base. Fain, who assumed the top union role just eight months ago in a landmark direct election, aims to unionise workers across the automotive industry, targeting non-union companies such as Toyota and electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla.

Following the UAW’s achievement of major pay raises, no-union firms like Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and Nissan reportedly increased their workers’ pay, a move Fain interprets as an effort to preclude unionisation.

Last week, UAW members at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis ratified new settlement deals with a 64% majority vote. These agreements, termed among the most advantageous in the UAW’s history, include the elimination of various wage tiers, improved compensation for temporary hires, and enhanced 401(k) contributions.

Companies, Fain said, will spend ‘limitless amounts’ to try to stop the UAW, but the union can point to its Detroit contracts to show workers they will have a voice. In that way, he said, the union is a ‘great equaliser’.

He declined to say which non-union companies the UAW would target first. But high on the list is Tesla, whose biggest shareholder is CEO Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man and an outspoken opponent of the union.

Musk, who also runs the rocket company SpaceX, has talked about shipping Tesla production to Mexico and other low-cost countries.

‘The world’s richest man is the richest man for a reason,’ Fain said. ‘They get this kind of wealth by exploiting other people.’

Fain is vocal about his ambition to rejuvenate the labour movement in America, reminiscent of its growth in the 1930s and 40s and argues that American workers are disillusioned with stagnant wages in contrast to the escalating earnings of corporate executives. Fain sees the union as a vital instrument for levelling the economic playing field.

Regarding the organisation of Detroit automakers’ EV battery plants, Fain notes that GM and Stellantis have agreed to incorporate their joint venture plants into the UAW’s national contract, easing unionisation efforts. However, Ford has not yet agreed to this arrangement, leading Fain to warn of potential conflict.

The UAW’s future plans include advocating for stronger pension benefits in the 2028 contract negotiations and pushing for legislative changes to ensure ‘retirement security’ for all workers. Fain remains optimistic that the increased costs from the new contracts will not drive automakers to relocate production outside the US, given the union’s ability to strike over plant closures.

A pivotal moment in this movement towards a general strike is anticipated for May 2028. Fain has urged unions to align their contract expirations to this date, potentially leading to a coordinated strike on International Workers Day.

This strategy aims to leverage the collective strength of various unions, transcending industry boundaries.

The concept of a general strike, though historic in its nature, faces considerable challenges. For one, sympathy strikes and general strikes face legal hurdles due to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.

Furthermore, organising such a widespread action requires immense planning and resources, including bolstering union strike funds to support workers during potential strikes.

Moreover, there is a cultural challenge within the labour movement itself.

Many union leaders and organisations, like the AFL-CIO, have historically been reluctant to engage in militant actions.

This hesitancy necessitates a shift in leadership and ideology within these organisations, a process already underway as seen in the UAW under Fain’s leadership.

The general strike concept is not merely about halting work; it represents a broader struggle for economic justice and equality.

As workers from various sectors – from auto workers to teachers, from healthcare professionals to postal workers – consider joining this movement, the potential for a significant impact on the US economy and labour relations is immense.

In essence, the contemplation of a general strike in the US symbolises a critical juncture in labour history.

Yesterday, 25th November, Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, Amazon workers walked out in the US and there were protests in over 30 countries around the world in a massive day of action coordinated by the Make Amazon Pay coalition.

There were strikes in at least 18 warehouses in France and Germany, The campaign charges Amazon with ‘squeezing every last drop it can’ from workers, communities and the planet in the face of the cost-of-living scandal, global debt crisis and climate emergency.

In the United States, warehouse workers staged a walkout, as protests and rallies took place in over 10 cities from coast to coast, including outside (Amazon chairman) Jeff Bezos’ Manhattan penthouse.

Also on Black Friday, over 400 of Macy’s workers started a three day strike for Unfair Labour Practices (ULP) at the busiest stores in Washington state.

A Statement from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said: ‘Jeff Gennett, Macy’s CEO, makes $11M a year. Macy’s makes more than $1bn in profits per year.’

‘Issues raised by the striking employees, from fair wages to safety concerns, echo larger debates about workers’ rights and corporate responsibility. The outcome of this strike could potentially set a precedent for labour practices in the retail industry.’