Union Sees Dollar Signs in Bank Workers

A two-million member union representing service workers sees dollar signs in bank employees.

The Service Employees International Union, or the SEIU, is setting its sights on unionizing "front-line financial workers," to help win better salaries, benefits and other working conditions. SEIU was joined by Rep. Keith Ellison (D., Minn.) on Tuesday to made its case for organizing Bank of America ( BAC) employees on a conference call with reporters.

While SEIU wraps its arguments in a cloak of morality, the ultimate goal is profitability. There were 608,000 tellers in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the occupation is expected to grow another 13% by 2016. That's a lot of potential union dues. Ellison, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, counts unions as three of the top five contributors to his campaigns, according to OpenSecrets.org.

But at what cost does organizing bank workers come?

First off, consider that unions tend to go on strike when its workers become unhappy? SEIU Spokesman Ali Jost says strikes are "one single fold in one fan of many options." But can there be a more destabilizing effect on banks than tellers walking out on strike?

Stephen Lerner, who is organizing the bank campaign for SEIU, says the union wants to "give a voice" to workers after hearing from tellers that they were under enormous pressure to pitch products they felt weren't good for customers, like overdraft protection and high-fee credit cards. Lerner thinks commission sales should be removed from the banking system and replaced with a higher salary. But remember, these employees were more than happy to earn commission sales for these products when times were good.

Besides, an air conditioned office, benefits, decent hours and entry level pay starting at $9.50 an hour, according to SEIU, doesn't seem all too bad in a time of high unemployment.

The union also attacks highly paid bankers. "Too much wealth or power undercuts the middle class," Lerner says. So investment bankers that who work for months on incredibly complicated deals that bring the bank a fee worth millions aren't entitled to their cut? That sounds like Marxism, not the American culture of working your way to the top.

Bank of America said in a statement that its workers did not need to be unionized.

"Bank of America is pro-associate and believes that managers are well-equipped to respond to associates' needs," the company said. "We also believe that direct interaction between associates and managers is key to our organization's success and each associate's career development."

SEIU has been a vocal critic of Bank of America, calling for CEO Ken Lewis to be fired and the company to curb high fees and "predatory" lending practices, among other things.

The union hasn't offer as clear a strategy for how exactly the company can make the profits it needs to pay back TARP loans or reduce layoffs. Lerner grudgingly agrees the bank's borrowers should bear some personal responsibility and not spend more than what is in their accounts and pay their credit card bills on time.

With banks like Bank of America and Citigroup ( C) attempting to pay back billions in government investments made through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, profitability at the companies should be a bigger priority than the union's.

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