Like many Americans, Ted Laurel has lost loved ones to Covid-19. Those include some Wells Fargo coworkers, losses that have left him devastated and motivated to fix his workplace from the ground up.
Throughout the pandemic, Laurel, a specialist in Wells Fargo’s mortgage business in Texas, said some of his coworkers were exposed to the virus after going into the office while people in other business lines had the option to work from home. He said that disparity became a “main driver for me” to dedicate time to forming a union with his coworkers.
“We are really fighting to make this equal for everybody and not just for our coworkers, but also for the customers — because that’s who we’re really here for,” Laurel told Insider, adding that he believes if staffers are better protected and under less stress at work, they will better serve their customers. A Wells Fargo spokesperson said the bank is “deeply committed to the safety and well-being of our employees,” and that it has had “extensive safety measures” in place during the pandemic.
Laurel is one of the leaders of a small, growing group of rank-and-file Wells Fargo employees across the US gathering support among coworkers to unionize their workplace.
It is an unprecedented effort for the nearly union-free financial industry that highlights some staffers’ discontent at the country’s third-largest bank and the wave of thousands of workers pushing for a bigger voice in their workplaces this year. It also comes as Wells Fargo faces scrutiny over a number of scandals and its Chief Executive Charlie Scharf continues to shake up the bank.
“A lot of bank workers don’t realize they have the right to organize,” said Nick Weiner, the senior campaign lead for the Committee for Better Banks at the Communications Workers of America, the union giant working with Wells Fargo organizers. “There is a bit of a learning curve for some folks who just feel like, ‘Hey, things aren’t right. But I don’t know what I can do.'”
Workers on the union’s 25-person organizing committee, which includes senior compliance officers, underwriters, personal bankers, tellers, and other employees, say the drive is gathering steam. The effort counts about 300 supporters in 25 states across the US, including Texas, Minnesota, Florida, and Arizona. This core group of employee organizers has doubled in about six months as they have ramped up their communications with colleagues. So far in June, 53 Wells Fargo employees have signed up for the CBB’s campaign.
Laurel and Meggan Halvorson, a mortgage closer based in Minneapolis who is also on the employees’ organizing committee, said they want to address pay disparities, gain protections at work if layoffs occur, fight for adequate staffing levels in offices and branches, and secure an ability to negotiate over work-from-home arrangements and other matters like better insurance options through a union. The Guardian earlier reported on Wells Fargo workers’ union effort.
“We have a long-standing commitment to compensating our employees fairly, and in recent years, we have taken various steps to provide enhanced support to our employees through compensation and benefits, with particular emphasis on supporting our lower-paid and front-line employees,” a Wells Fargo spokesperson said in a statement to Insider.
Wells Fargo employees’ concerns embody the modern labor movement. Organizers say the drive is gaining traction as worker-led unions inside major corporations including Amazon, Apple, Starbucks, and Alphabet have formed with highly visible campaigns. The pandemic has turbocharged the organizing wave, including at Wells Fargo.
Core organizers with the union, Wells Fargo Workers United, regularly hold video calls with their colleagues to hear concerns about the workplace. They educate each other about US employees’ legally protected rights, like the ability to talk to each other about their working conditions and forming a union. They blast out messages on social media platforms like Reddit, for instance, which serves as something of a virtual town square for employees. Some colleagues have even changed their photos on Skype to the CBB logo.
In a statement to Insider, a Wells Fargo spokesperson said the bank “believes our employees are best served by working directly with the company and its leadership to address matters of concern,” and that the bank has measures in place, like through its employee relations team, to raise concerns.
The union effort isn’t new; employees at Wells Fargo have been trying to unionize for about seven years. They have been galvanized by a string of high-profile scandals and turmoil in some areas of the San Francisco-based bank, like recent layoffs in its mortgage unit.
Weiner, who advises bank employees who are seeking to unionize through the CBB and the CWA, said staff at other banks, including TD Bank and Truist, have reached out to him for information about starting a union. (A local union of the CWA, the NewsGuild of New York, represents journalists at Insider.) Representatives for TD Bank and Truist did not respond to requests for comment from Insider.
But even as some employees voice support for forming a union at Wells Fargo, which would afford them opportunities to negotiate directly with management over issues like benefits and layoffs, staff who support the effort have their work cut out for them.
Setting up collective bargaining units at a massive company like Wells Fargo is a tremendous undertaking. The bank has some 250,000 employees across five different business lines.
Just over 1% of the financial services sector is unionized, according to a January report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Industries with high unionization rates include utilities, at around 20%, and the film and sound recording industries at about 17%.
“A lot of this is that workers who previously said ‘Unions are just for blue collar workers’ are realizing that they need to have a formal voice in their workplace too,” Ileen DeVault, a professor of labor history at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told Insider.
“Health and safety issues and what their rights are in the workplace, all of those things are highlighted right now,” DeVault said. “And workers are beginning to realize that they have no way to address them other than a union.”
Pushing for change
Wells Fargo employees who have joined the unionizing effort include those in Wells Fargo’s
business. And the firm’s mortgage employees, like Laurel and Halvorson, have recently faced layoffs and firings in their unit.
Earlier this year, Wells Fargo fired mortgage staff handling loan processing, underwriting and fulfillment roles. The dismissals, which took place across at least five markets in the US were carried out in a way that some found dehumanizing, starting with a cryptic email and finishing with an impersonal conference call that reminded at least one employee of a recording. They could have been worse, the head of home mortgage later said, if Wells Fargo hadn’t transferred 300 underwriters to other roles in the bank.
In May, Wells Fargo fired dozens of front line loan officers after investigations found that they made allegedly improper changes to the estimated home value in the bank’s systems.
While loan officers work on commission and can often make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, Wells Fargo has shrunk that commission structure in recent years. Nonetheless, back office roles typically get paid a salary, making them more traditional candidates for a unionization effort.
The bank also continues to grapple with the legacy of its high-profile fake accounts scandal that came to light in 2016.
Regulators have imposed consent orders on Wells Fargo in recent years related to the phony accounts scandal as well as other parts of its business. The
placed an asset cap, unprecedented at that time in its restrictions, on the bank in 2018.
The fallout from that scandal led Scharf to Wells, where he vowed to transform the bank and pushed a sweeping overhaul of its top ranks. But since Scharf joined the bank in 2019, Wells Fargo hasn’t been immune to scrutiny of its business practices.
In March, Bloomberg reported that Wells had approved fewer than half of refinancing applications from Black borrowers in 2020, a pandemic-era blockbuster year for lending. And in May, the New York Times reported that Wells Fargo had conducted interviews with women and people of color after those roles had been promised to other candidates, in an effort to boost diversity metrics.
A spokesperson for Wells Fargo said the bank is conducting a review of its diverse hiring guidelines so they are implemented properly. The spokesperson also said the bank is “deeply disturbed by allegations of discrimination” in home lending “that we believe do not stand up to scrutiny.”
As the drive gathers support, they face hurdles unique to banks’ set-ups. More colleagues working in branches have joined the effort, including longer-tenured personal bankers, but recruiting is a challenge because they are often small and isolated from each other. The bank had nearly 4,800 branches across 37 states as of 2021.
That adds to challenges that come with employees seeking to convince coworkers to join their cause, especially with remote work posing challenges to meeting people in person. Beneficial Bank, based on the West Coast, with the CBB and CWA organized the only successful drive in 40 years.
“It’s definitely not a sector where unions have had a lot of success — or really even much interest,” Glenn Spencer, senior vice president for employment policy at the right-leaning US Chamber of Commerce, told Insider. Workers in the financial service sectors tend to “get paid fairly well,” he said, “so it just hasn’t been something they’ve felt like they needed to look to.”
And even as Wells Fargo leadership has aimed to improve its workplace, the response from other companies seeing similar union efforts suggest the bank’s management is likely to push back. For instance, while workers at Amazon and Starbucks have notched union victories, both have faced significant pushback from management. And a Wells Fargo spokesperson did not respond to Insider’s question on whether the bank would remain neutral toward the union.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio and chairman of the Banking Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, asked big bank CEOs last year whether they would pledge to remain neutral if their employees wished to unionize. Scharf did not respond directly when Sen. Brown asked twice.
“We would work with our employees to make sure that their voice is heard, and do everything we can to ensure that voice is loud and clear,” Scharf said.
Wells workers’ long road
Wells Fargo organizers are actively deciding how best to set up the union. With Wells Fargo’s sprawling businesses, a key task for the employee organizers is figuring out how to organize the different responsibilities and jobs staff have across divisions.
Some larger organizations will have workers represented within different bargaining units aligning with their work and demands. For instance, hairdressers and lighting designers on a Broadway show will all belong to a larger union, but have specific locals that represent them as they negotiate when they’re doing makeup, or the working conditions on set.
“We are strategizing in a way where we’re finding leaders in every line of business, every department, every structure that’s within Wells Fargo. We are ultimately bringing everybody together, like a chain of command of sorts,” Laurel said.
Wells Fargo workers join thousands who have organized or gone on strike this past year, and the organizers know they have a long road ahead.
While support for unions is high — 68% of Americans approve of them, a high not seen since 1965 — union membership is still low. Union membership declined in 2021, continuing a decades-long trend that some labor advocates attribute to laws increasingly tilted towards employers rather than their staffers.
“I wouldn’t want to overstate what’s actually happening here,” Spencer, of the Chamber of Commerce, said.
The overall US private sector’s unionization rate of just 6% is largely a result of “concerted employer opposition to unionism, especially since the late 1970s,” said Ruth Milkman, the labor studies chair at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies. Union protection allows employees to express their views at work with “greatly reduced fear of firing or other retaliation,” she said.
There are many aspects of the drive that remain undecided, namely who would be eligible for union representation and who would be considered part of management.
“It’s just a matter of getting the word out there, saying, ‘Hey, this is what we’re trying for, or what we want to get,'” Halvorson said. “But we need them to know that. And there’s definitely an appetite out there, because the inequity is too thick. So people are mad.”