Opinion

The best way to protect against unscrupulous bank tactics? Empower workers

A unionized and empowered banking workforce might be one of the best defences against management pressure to upsell customers.

If anything, this upselling scandal is as much a labour issue as it is a consumer watchdog one

The CBC investigation into upselling revealed that many workers feared they would lose their jobs if they didn't follow management orders, even if they thought they were wrong. (CBC)

CBC's recent investigation into upselling by bank employees blew the door open on shady practices that have long plagued Canada's financial institutions. The stories detailed toxic work environments where employees said they felt pressured to sell customers products they didn't need — sometimes breaking the law — to meet high sales targets set by management.

Much of the discussion in the aftermath focused on how the banking industry would be affected by such revelations and how customers can protect themselves from unwanted products and fees. But there's another aspect of this story that merits discussion: How did the work environments at these banks become so bad that employees couldn't challenge these unethical and illegal practices? If anything, this scandal is as much a labour issue as it is a consumer watchdog one.

Precarious employment, low wages

Banking is often viewed as an industry offering secure white-collar jobs with good wages. In reality, many non-management bank employees, including tellers and call centre workers, face the same issues as other non-unionized private sector service workers: precarious employment, low wages and stressful work environments.

In 2007, for example, workers filed class-action lawsuits against CIBC and Scotiabank over issues related to unpaid overtime. In 2013, RBC outsourced information technology jobs in Toronto to a multinational outsourcing firm from India, which meant that many Canadian workers lost their jobs. Over the past two years alone, banks have laid off thousands of employees, all while earning record profits. It's certainly no wonder why, as the CBC investigation into upselling revealed, many workers feared they would lose their jobs if they didn't follow management orders to upsell customers, even if they thought it was wrong.

In many other countries around the world, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, India and the United Kingdom, bank workers have dealt with similar kinds of issues by unionizing. In Canada, there have been repeated attempts to establish a union for bank employees. In 1942, a group of Montreal bank workers staged the first Canadian bank strike. In the late 1960s, bank employees in Quebec secured the first collective agreement in the industry. Most notably, in the 1970s, hundreds of bank employees signed union cards during the most significant bank organizing drive in Canadian history.

Unfortunately, these efforts were met with limited success, due in large part to employer hostility and intervention. Banks have consistently opposed unions and used a variety of tactics to stop employees from organizing, which has included circulating anti-union materials and false information in the workplace, withholding pay increases, transferring employees and pressuring pro-union workers to resign.  

Employees from all 5 of Canada’s big banks have flooded CBC's Go Public with stories of pressure to meet sales targets 3:20

The immense power and vast resources banks hold mean they have little to lose by ignoring worker demands and pursuing lengthy and expensive legal battles that they can easily afford to wage. That's what happened in 1977 when RBC appealed a certification order issued by the Canada Labour Relations Board. The appeal likely would have failed, but nonetheless it drained the finances of the small independent union that, at the time, had the most bargaining units in the industry. The union ultimately withdrew from negotiations with the banks and from bank organizing. Since the 1980s, there has been no concerted effort to unionize bank workers.

The result is that the Canadian banking industry continues to have a low unionization rate. According to Statistics Canada, in 2012 only 8.9 per cent of workers in finance, insurance, real estate and leasing were unionized.

Challenging employers

Some bank workers, like those at Laurentian Bank of Canada, have managed to remain unionized for several decades. Others have struggled to secure a first agreement and remain unionized. Without a union and a collective agreement, bank employees have limited power to challenge their employers. They can, of course, still choose to ignore orders, quit their jobs, file lawsuits, or go to the press. But while all of these tactics can, at times, be useful forms of resistance, individual acts will do little to change power relations between banks and their workers.

The call for greater industry regulation won't deliver long-term change. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Banks engaging in unethical and possibly illegal behaviour is neither new nor surprising; banks are primarily responsible to their shareholders and their main goal is to maximize profits. But the call for greater industry regulation, which usually comes from the public following these sorts of scandals, won't deliver the long-term, fundamental culture overhauls needed to fix the problem. Better protections for workers will.  

As former president of the AFL-CIO Thomas R. Donahue once stated, "The only effective answer to organized greed is organized labour." Given that the public relies on bank workers to blow the whistle on unethical and illegal practices in the banking industry, a unionized and empowered banking workforce might be one of the best defences against unscrupulous bank tactics.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Julia Smith

Julia Smith is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Rutgers University. She studies the history of union organizing in the Canadian banking industry and has published articles on labour relations in the Canadian airline industry and feminist union organizing in the service industry.