Outside of the Bank of America branch at 95 Wall Street, a man in a robot costume did the Robot during yesterday's lunch hour. He danced along to the chants of the protesters walking in a circle outside of the branch. They were there to protest the new video teller ATMs that the company started rolling out this fall, which the new 95 Wall Street branch has recently installed.
As they sang, “Outsourcing ain't the way, community tellers are here to stay,” an employee who'd been hovering in the lobby with a tablet computer on his arm joined several more bankers in suits and a burly security guard.
The group of 30 or so protesters was from the Committee for Better Banks, a labor-community coalition that includes the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN), Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and the Communications Workers of America union (CWA).
The committee’s aim, according to Brigid Flaherty, organizing director at ALIGN, is “fighting to create a transparent and just banking system by improving the working conditions for employees in finance.” Yesterday, they were supporting Alex Shalom, a teller at the Bank of America on New York's 42nd Street and 3rd Avenue, as he attempted to deliver a letter to the bank's CEO asking for a meeting to discuss the bank's plan to shift to video tellers.
When Shalom first heard about the new “ATM with Teller Assist” machines, he didn't think much of it. New technology is a fact of life for most workers these days, and Shalom and his colleagues are no exception.
But these ATMs are not just a technological innovation—they are using actual workers stationed remotely at call centers, who video-conference with customers. When Shalom learned “that it was actually just another person being paid less to do the same job as me, not in our community,” he got upset and decided to try to organize his coworkers around the issue.
He started a petition on Coworker.org calling on the bank to stop the move to the new machines and keep well-paid jobs in the communities they serve, and he's got the backing of his community as he protests the outsourcing of his job.
ALIGN's Flaherty, tells In These Times, “I think it's a very brave step for workers in Bank of America and other workers who support them to say, ‘We know what you've done to communities, we've seen how you really put burdens on homeowners and we've seen how you put burdens on students. But we're the ones that no one really understands or has seen yet how you've put [burdens] on us. And today is the day that we're going to stand up and fight back.’”
The new video teller ATMs were featured in a glowing segment on “Marketplace” with the bizarre title “Your bank teller will live inside an ATM.” Of course, the teller doesn't “live” or even work inside the ATM—they're based at a call center in Jacksonville, Fla. According to Indira Celaya, the video teller that “Marketplace” reporter Mark Garrison spoke with through the ATM, customers have a hard time believing that she's real. “I tell them I am a real person and you know, it’s very funny and it’s an icebreaker, I believe.” (In These Times attempted to contact Celaya and did not get a reply.)
Based on what Shalom’s managers have told him, he has two worries about the new system: That it will threaten his own job, and that it will mean low-quality jobs for his remotely located colleagues. He says he's been told that the video tellers will make the same amount as regular tellers in the locations where they're based—which may be considerably less, he says, than the wages in some areas they are servicing, such as Manhattan. “If I worked in my own [Brooklyn] neighborhood—I actually pass like ten Bank of Americas to get to work—I'd be getting paid something like two or three dollars less.”
Besides profiting from lower wages, the bank also can squeeze more work out of fewer people with the new remote teller system. Shalom points out, “It allows them to have less people because you can have one teller servicing multiple branches at once, which is impossible for an in-person person.” A call center worker will be free to take call after call from around the country without leaving her desk. In other words, the new technology will mean that fewer people do more work—a recipe for job cuts and lousy working conditions, which is what’s fueling Shalom’s fears.
Garrison also notes that the new machines will change the way bank branches are organized. By saving space with the new machines, which take up just a bit more space than a regular ATM, Bank of America can open smaller branches in places like Manhattan where real estate is at a premium. And the real-life employees at these new small branches, Garrison reports, will be there “to boost the bank’s bottom line.” They're there, in other words, to upsell products to the bank's wealthier customers—something Shalom says that tellers are already pressured to do.
“We have to refer customers from the window, who are just doing a deposit or whatever, over to the bankers. We have to get a certain number, the goal being one per hour. About 8 percent of customers,” he says.
Shalom is not a fan of this practice: “That just leads to people suggesting things that people don't need. You're trying to sell somebody like a fifth credit card just because you need to meet your goal, but they don't need a fifth credit card. That's a predatory practice.”
He hopes that if he and his colleagues organize, they'll be able to stop those predatory practices, and others besides. Brigid Flaherty, organizing director for ALIGN, tells In These Times, “I think it's a very brave step for workers in Bank of America and other workers who support them to say, ‘We know what you've done to communities, we've seen how you really put burdens on homeowners and we've seen how you put burdens on students. But we're the ones that no one really understands or has seen yet how you've put [burdens] on us. And today is the day that we're going to stand up and fight back.’ ”
Countries where some of the same multinational megabanks are unionized provide a model of how workers’ collective power can not only improve their lot, but also curb banking abuses. Stephen Lerner writes at AlterNet (full disclosure: I commissioned and edited this piece when I worked at AlterNet) that the 438,000 Brazilian bank and financial workers who are covered by union contracts use their power to win gains both political and economic; including holding big banks like Citibank and HSBC accountable for their actions. Sindicato dos Bancários a Financiários de Săo Paulo, which is being honored at NYCC's year-end gala on December 3, has pushed for greater accountability at the banks and stronger protections for workers who might blow the whistle on shady bank practices.
Shalom and his colleagues say they are not trying to form a union at the moment, but they do see the power of collectively taking action—and are inspired by other low-wage workers like those at McDonald's and Walmart who have done the same. “I think people need to know that tellers are just cashiers with ties on,” Shalom says, pointing out that widespread anger at the banks often falls on the shoulders of tellers like him, who are working for wages not much better than those of a retail or fast-food employee, at a job with little potential for advancement. He says his wages work out to about $26,000 a year for a full-time employee—and that's at the better-paid branch in Manhattan.
After his petition hit the Internet, Shalom says, he was pulled into a meeting with a bank executive. It was on a day when he had picked up extra hours at a branch not his usual, so when he was pulled aside he didn't know anyone he could ask for support. Rather than being disciplined or fired, though, he says the executive simply argued that he shouldn't be opposed to the video tellers. Shalom says he argued in return that teller jobs are one of the better-paid cashier or sales position that one can have. Then, in what Shalom calls his “favorite” moment in the argument, the executive replied, “Oh, it's arguable whether a teller job is livable.”
“So if our job isn't livable, how are these people from Delaware getting livable jobs?” Shalom asks.
The organizations that make up the coalition have a long track record of targeting the banks and of organizing workers, so it seems natural that eventually they'd try to bring together these two issues. CWA also has a history of organizing call-center workers—and, Flaherty notes, documenting horrible speed-up conditions for the workers in those centers. But, she says, “It really connects beyond just the organizations that make up the committee to this movement that we're seeing that has also inspired the workers that we have been organizing—many times when we have meetings they reference things like the fast food strike, they reference things like Wal-Mart. This is really, to us continuing that movement to improve working conditions for those who are making our economy run and who are really the sort of backbone of these industries but are really considered dispensable by the largest corporations in the world.”
Like McDonald's and Wal-Mart, Bank of America is a household name and something of an easy target. In addition to billions in federal bailout dollars, the bank has received millions more in subsidies from New York to remain, build, and create jobs in the state. According to watchdog group Good Jobs New York, the bank received $42 million in Liberty Bonds and other subsidies from the city and state in 2004, and a special lease arrangement with the Empire State Development Corporation worth up to $40 million for an office building in Midtown anchored by the bank, in exchange for an agreement to create jobs that runs until 2028. And before it was taken over by Bank of America—in a $50 billion deal (with $20 billion in Treasury support and billions more in “backstopping”) that Heidi Moore at the Wall Street Journal called “a deal from hell”—the investment bank Merrill Lynch had received $28 million from the city in order to preserve its 9,000 jobs and create 2000 new ones by June 2012.
Organizers worry that Bank of America may now be trying to have its cake and eat it too, by keeping space in New York but shipping the jobs out of state,.
Flaherty points out that Bank of America is not the only bank that's looking for ways to squeeze more profits out of its workers. Over several months, as the coalition spoke with bank workers, she says, “We were seeing what was happening in the banks was really mirroring the decline in working conditions that were happening in a lot of other industries. We've seen the rise in CEO pay, and yet they keep saying there's this crisis and they have to keep cutting jobs, moving jobs out, but that's just not the actual reality. They have the money, they're just really trying to cut workers out of the equation.”
Bank of America's CEO, Brian Moynihan, the target of Shalom's letter, made $12 million in salary, stock awards, and other compensation in 2012—a 70 percent jump from the previous year.
When Shalom tried to deliver his letter inside the bank branch, he was met at the door by a security guard, who stepped outside into the cold to speak with him, telling him that unless he was working at the moment or needed to use the ATM, he could not come inside. The guard did promise to deliver the letter to CEO Moynihan.
For now, though, Shalom has a message for other bank employees who, like him, have a problem with the way their employer does business: “I successfully spoke out against a bad bank practice, and I haven't been fired or disciplined. I hope that it inspires other workers that they can and should do the same without fear of retribution.”
This piece first appeared in InTheseTimes.com