Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Regulating from Below: How Front-Line Bank Workers Can Help Fix the Financial Industry

September 27th, 2018 | AFL-CIO Now

Ten years after risky practices at our largest banks wreaked havoc on the global economy, we face a financial sector that, despite some reforms, remains broken in fundamental ways.

Wall Street has beat back many of the kinds of structural changes that happened after the Great Depression, and the reforms that have happened in the United States are rapidly being undermined by the Donald Trump administration. Banking scandals still abound—from Wells Fargo to Santander to Bank of America to Deutsche Bank. Consumers are encouraged to take on more debt than they can bear. Trust in the banking system remains dreadfully low while opacity of the financial system is near an all-time high.

In the wake of the 2008 crash, there was a renewed intensity by regulators and central banks to stop the bleeding caused by the banks’ irresponsible behavior, but that coordination has slipped away while power in the sector has concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer banks and corporations.

The public is right to sound the alarm.

Strengthening oversight of the financial system is necessary. Regulations are the guardrails that keep our global banking system from veering off course and into crisis. But while these rules are critical, they are stronger when paired with unions.

Unionization in the financial sector—the norm in nearly all advanced economies, except for the United States—provides a way to “strengthen financial regulation” from the ground up. Unions are a countervailing force against the worst tendencies of the financial sector, in part by guaranteeing that pay schemes are not driven by the extreme sales pressure and unfair performance metrics.

UNI Global Union has worked with finance unions around the world for many years to develop the best practices in this area, and many unions have negotiated what are called “sales and advice” clauses in their agreements to stop predatory Wells Fargo- and Santander-esque practices. In Italy, unions have a national, sector-wide agreement to rein in the high-pressure sales goals that harmed millions of consumers in the United States.

The Nordic unions provide another example. The Nordic Financial Unions have input into nearly all aspects of banks’ changing business practices and financial regulation through dialogue with global authorities. This cooperation exists because management sees the long-term benefit of partnering with unions for the bank, for workers and for consumers.  

Dialogue and partnership are especially important as banks that were “too big to fail” have grown even bigger. Through a cycle of constant mergers and acquisitions, global financial institutions have gotten bigger, more powerful and harder to regulate. Worker voices must be integrated into corporate governance of financial institutions to provide a backstop against abuses.

The importance of workers’ involvement in finding solutions to problems in our financial system cannot be stressed enough, given that executive decisions at systemically important banks easily affect the economy and our daily lives. This inclusion relies on an environment and culture in which workers are managed through respect and not fear, with protection against unfair dismissal and retaliation, will foster the trust and security required for workers to speak out against egregious practices  

Several large banks taking steps in the right direction by signing agreements with UNI to ensure that bank workers have the right to organize without the opposition and hostility common in the United States.   

Most recently BNP Paribas signed a Global Agreement with UNI that goes beyond the right to organize and also sets standards on paid maternity leave and insurance for its 200,000 employees around the world. 

In the United States, there are virtually no front-line bank employees protected by the kinds of collective bargaining agreements that have helped pump the breaks on abuses in other countries.

That is why U.S. bank workers have joined together to collectively speak out against questionable practices—exposing those that are risky, detrimental and fraudulent—and succeeded in challenging some of the industry’s vilest practices.

UNI Global Union-Finance and affiliates, such as the CONTRAF-CUT (Brazil), the NFU, La Bancaria (Argentina), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), along with the Committee for Better Banks, also have launched a global campaign for “regulation from below.” It puts workers’ voices and workers’ rights at the forefront of creating a healthier world financial system.

We know that “regulations from above” can and do work. In the U.S., Glass-Steagall, Dodd-Frank and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have curbed banks’ ability to game the system and hurt working people.

A multinational coalition of bank workers standing together to help fix the financial industry can help re-ignite the global approach needed to bring trust to our banking system.

Banks and other large financial institutions must act responsibly and be accountable when they do not. Governments must have their feet held to the fire to enforce, enhance and defend protections against unethical banking practices.

That’s something that workers united, and unafraid to speak out, are well positioned to do.

This post comes on the heels of a new report, authored by UNI Finance and the AFL-CIO, with support by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung New York, titled Tipping the Balance: Collective Action by Finance Workers Creates ‘Regulation from Below.

This blog was originally published by the AFL-CIO on September 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Christy Hoffman is the General Secretary of the UNI Global Union, a federation of 20 million service workers from more than 150 countries

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