Labor Unions Wooing Worried Bank Employees

Article excerpt

Labor unions are going after bank workers with a newfound optimism.

Long stifled in their bank-organization attempts, unions are playing the merger card, pointing to the massive layoffs from large-bank consolidations that have brought an unprecedented level of job insecurity.

"You only have to pick up a newspaper to know what your future is," said Thomas R. McNutt, president of Local 400 of United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Washington, which is trying to unionize Riggs National Bank in the nation's capital. "Anyone who works for a bank and thinks they have job security today either doesn't read a newspaper or is just foolish."

To be sure, Mr. McNutt's union still has a big battle ahead. And nationwide, few banks have been unionized - and no one union is dominant.

But union organizers are not deterred and view banking as especially fertile territory.

"I see a resurgence in unions, especially in this day where the banks just want to make more money," said Paul F. Bayush, president of Local 8204 of United Steelworkers, which represents workers at the U.S. Bank subsidiary of Johnstown, Pa.-based USBancorp.

"Every employee is concerned that you're going to be bought," Mr. Bayush said. "It's that type of atmosphere that we live in."

Officials of Mr. McNutt's union in Washington are warning workers at the $4.5 billion-asset Riggs of impending layoffs, due to either an acquisition or a cost-cutting program. Only a union, they say, can prevent the workers from being abandoned by the company.

"If the cost-cutting doesn't get you, the takeover will," say union brochures, underscoring "takeover." "If you want loyalty, get a dog. If you want job protection, get a union."

Riggs officials have declined to comment.

The United Food and Commercial Workers, one of many unions targeting banking and other service industries, says its efforts are paying off. Since it began contacting Riggs employees in November and launched a toll free information hotline, more than 100 workers have expressed some interest. Some have attended preliminary meetings.

Under federal labor laws, the union needs the signatures of at least 30%, or 489, of Riggs' 1,630 employees before it can petition the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election. But Mr. McNutt said his group prefers to get more than 50%.

Such campaigns are likely to spread to other parts of the country, union officials say, as they try to make up for membership losses they have suffered at manufacturing companies.

Labor officials say their strongest support is likely to come from those who toil behind the scenes at bank operations centers, whose jobs are threatened by technology and who might be viewed as more expendable than people who have direct contact with customers.

After its merger with Chemical Banking Corp. …