By Don McIntosh
Workers at Beneficial Bank in Oregon, California and Washington are now members of Communications Workers of America (CWA), thanks to a union neutrality agreement signed by the bank last year. Both the bank and the union announced March 2 that a majority of the 113 workers at 13 branches in the three states have signed union authorization cards.
Formerly known as OneCalifornia Bank, Beneficial Bank was co-founded by billionaire Tom Steyer and his wife Kat Taylor in 2007 as a bank focused on community development, serving non-profits and small businesses. Steyer resigned from the bank’s board of directors in July 2019, the month he launched a campaign for president. Taylor remains the bank’s current board chair and was its CEO when CWA requested union neutrality. The union campaign got under way in December. Steyer dropped out of the race Feb. 29 after spending over $250 million and failing to win any delegates in the first four states to hold votes.
Beneficial Bank has for years promoted itself as a good employer, paying 150% of the living wage wherever it operates, and offering a benefits package that exceeds industry standards.
“Beneficial has tried to be a leader in the finance industry in pursuing a model in which they can be both ethical and profitable,” CWA organizing coordinator Erin Mahoney told the Labor Press.
Though common in other countries, bank industry unions are incredibly rare in the United States. Just 1.3% of workers in U.S. finance are union members, according to the latest census survey compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—tying banking with the restaurant sector for “least unionized industry.” BLS estimates that out of more than 4.2 million U.S. workers in finance, just 55,000 are union members. And according to CWA, no private bank employees have successfully formed a new union in over 40 years.
Globally, over 3 million bank workers have union representation, and America’s rock-bottom union rate has spurred banking unions in other countries to pledge help for American workers who want a union. In 2012, CWA was approached by banking unions in Brazil, Argentina, and Spain — concerned that the massive and largely nonunion U.S. banking sector was bringing down standards in other countries. In the United States, teller jobs have become high-turnover positions with low wages and poor conditions, but in other countries, front-line banking jobs are seen as middle class careers.
In Brazil, unions represent 39.6% of banking workers, and since 1993 a national collective bargaining agreement has guaranteed workers at all banks in the country the same wages, hours, and economic and social rights. Together with the global union federation UNI, the banking unions in Brazil and other countries formed an alliance with CWA called the Committee for Better Banks. Mahoney said the committee has support among workers at all the major U.S. banks, but Beneficial is the first bank to go union since the campaign launched.
Christina McAlvey, a business banking underwriter at the downtown Portland branch, told the Labor Press she sees the union as a way to come together and work to improve conditions at the bank.
In Portland, 34 Beneficial Bank workers will become members of CWA Local 7901 at all five local branches: 1101 SW Washington St.; 2002 NE MLK Jr. Blvd.; 5636 NE Sandy Blvd.; 320 NW 10th Ave.; and 8040 N. Lombard St.
The bargaining unit will include bankers, consumer loan servicing representatives, loan processors, underwriters, file clerks and custodial staff.