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Will Bank Employees Sign Up for Unions Labor Makes Big Push

With the reintroduction of the Employee Free Choice Act likely, big labor targets the financial services sector.

February 24, 2009

Labor groups are targeting industries they believe they have a good chance of organizing should a new law be enacted making it easier for workers to join unions.

And it appears that unions think employees in the financial sector are ripe for organizing, in light of the Wall Street crisis and the spotlight it has shone on executive compensation. The Service Employees International Union has already started talking with bank tellers, who earn a median salary of less than $25,000 a year in New York City.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which passed in the House of Representatives in 2007 but stalled in the Senate, is expected to be reintroduced in both houses within weeks. President Barack Obama has expressed his support for the measure.

The measure would require employers to recognize a union when a majority of workers sign authorization cards, and it would impose binding arbitration if an initial contract can’t be negotiated within 120 days. Under current law, an employer can call for an election, a process that gives companies the time to sway workers against the union.

“Lots of bank tellers and bank employees are really angry that they face mass layoffs while executives are getting huge bonuses,” said Stephen Lerner, assistant to SEIU president Andy Stern. “Bank employees are talking with co-workers and with us about how to fix the financial industry so it works for consumers, workers and the country, not just executives.”

Employers in the financial activities sector—which employs more than 450,000 people in the city, including many back-office workers—are not ready for changes in the law, employment lawyers say.

“Historically, they never thought they were at risk of unionization,” said Michael Lotito, a partner at Jackson Lewis. “They have managers who probably wouldn’t know a union card or what their company’s position is on unions from a man on the moon.”

Banking is not the only industry that will be targeted by labor. Any unorganized workplace, from major retailers to restaurants to hotels, will be fair game.

“Should EFCA become law, I don’t think any sector should think it’s not likely to be the subject of an organizing campaign,” said Maggie Moree, director of federal affairs for the Business Council of New York State.

Both labor and management experts expect unions to target a wide array of service industries.

Business advocates and labor lawyers say employers generally have been slow to grasp the potential impact of the measure.

“This will affect a lot of people who just have no idea of what they’re facing,” said Jeffrey Bernstein, chairman of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “My fear is there’s going to be people who are totally unprepared and find themselves unionized without understanding how it happened.”

Some employers have taken steps to educate their workers and managers about the possible changes in the law. For example, Home Depot posted information about the proposal on an employee Web site and discussed it with managers during planning meetings. Burger King issued a memo to franchisees about the act.

Peter Conrad, a partner at law firm Proskauer Rose, said even banks are starting to mobilize.

“They’re bringing us in to do training and make sure supervisors know what they need to do before a union appears on the scene,” he said. “Believe me, if an employer is doing what it can do, it can make it as hard for the union to organize with EFCA [as without].”

Filed by Daniel Massey of Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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