On Monday, October 19th, Common Ground Radio host John Tassoni was joined by Ben Wolcott, an organizer for the Committee for Better Banks, Mike Araujo, executive director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, and a former bank worker, who just went by her first name, Judith. We present edited excerpts from that interview below. --TEH

Ben Wolcott: I am an organizer for the Committee for Better Banks, an organization of bank workers supported by community and labor groups. We're organizing bank workers because they deserve a living wage without having to push products that will hurt their neighbor's finances and their own mental health. A lot of people don't realize this, but a third of front line bank workers, your tellers, your personal bankers, make less than $15 an hour, and that's in the most profitable industry in the world. The committee for better banks brings those workers together in order to win concrete changes and develop real leadership.

"Bank workers represent the least organized sector of industry in the United States." Mike Araujo

JT: Wouldn't it be easier for bank tellers to go to work at McDonalds for $15 an hour? There's no stress, just put hamburgers in a bag, bring 'em out, and out the door they go.

Ben: That's a question that a lot of bank workers face every day. A lot of people do choose to leave the industry because of low wages and stress. There are also a lot of workers who deeply believe that the industry needs to be better, not just for the front line workers, but also for the communities they serve, and that's why they're organizing the Committee for Better Banks.

JT: I know you're going to say, "You're crazy, John," but shouldn’t Washington be able to come up with better rules and regulations for these banks and their workers? If you saw what happened on Wall Street last week with Wells Fargo and what they did, firing bank workers for not meeting their quota, that was horrific.

Ben: It is totally horrific. I definitely don't think you're crazy for suggesting that we need more regulation from Washington. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) just issued a huge fine to Wells Fargo, their (CFPB) largest fine to date. They are the agency that was created after the 2008 financial crisis that regulated the industry. They basically put the industry on notice, saying that these sales goals are leading to huge abuses and the whole incentive structure created by the executives at the top wasn't working at Wells Fargo.

What we've seen so far from this huge fine is that the CFPB is looking into further regulating sales goals, which is a huge win for bank workers, because it means they don't have to go through congress to improve their working conditions.

JT: Because of what happened to Wells Fargo, do you think it puts the other banks on notice? Do you think that things will change now?

Ben: I'm extremely hopeful. Wells Fargo was a leader in setting high sales goals, and the rest of the banks followed. The fact that Wells Fargo is now completely reversing that decision and has announced that by the beginning of next year that they'll eliminate sales goals entirely bodes well for how bank workers are organizing across the country, to bring this win to other banks, because it is not just a problem at Wells Fargo.

JT: Give us some examples of what it is like working under these goals.

Judith: The gun to your head is the fact that your job depends on it. If you do not meet these sales goals, your job is jeopardized. Your salary is dependent on it. Salary increases. Bonuses. Your job overall. Every time there is a quarterly goal. There is a daily revision of what you're doing, of what every employee is selling.

JT: Are the goals to open up, say, six saving accounts, four checking accounts, four car loans, a mortgage and a player to be named later?

Judith: Correct. Every single product in the bank has a sales value attached to it. The employees are highly encouraged to "sell" as many of these products to every individual that walks through the door. The goals are ever increasing. They never go lower, they always go higher. Even if you did excellent, even if you did a great job, the next quarter you have to do better, because the goals are going to be higher.

I could sell a lot of checking accounts, but if I am weak in other areas, then that's also seen as not a good performance, so you have to sell a lot of products. All the products have individual numbers that have to be met, so those goals are a component -- it is a combination of all those different products being sold aggressively to meet that goal. There are individual goals like credit cards, checking accounts, savings accounts, et cetera.

JT: Does this go for the tellers also, beside the other people who work in the branch?

Judith: It is a ripple effect. The teller has a specific goal. They're a little lower, but they have a goal. Then there's a goal for customer service. There's a goal that the manager as a manager has for the branch, a branch goal. Then there is a regional goal, et cetera. It goes up the line. So every aspect of the banking system has a sales goal to meet.

JT: I have my own goals. Personal goals, business goals. Mike, what's the difference with banking goals?

Mike: We all have to bank, right? We have a need to use this service inside the banks. So every time we walk in, if we're just seen as a number or a point on a chart, then we're not getting the full service that we deserve, and that's no good.

Nobody's arguing that the folks that run the banks shouldn't be making a dollar. They have a right to make some money. And the model of ways that banks made money wasn't bad for most of history. They did pretty good, you know.

But then they started to look at us like used car salesmen, selling us a product that we may not need, that may not actually help us in the long run, that in fact actually may hurt us. That's when the goals became wrong, when they lost their ethical founding in business.

You would never set a goal that would hurt your neighbor, right? Who would do that? I would never set a personal goal that alienated or hurt my family. I would never do that. Banks occupy a place in a community. If the goals that they are setting are doing damage to the community, there is something wrong with those goals.

JT: Ben, what led you to come here to Rhode Island?

Ben: Actually, I ended up finding out about bank workers in Rhode Island because they reached out to us. I'm based out of New York, and we got a call from bank workers at Bank of America in Rhode Island two or three years ago, and we started coming up and meeting with them and trying to figure out how we could improve conditions on the job.

JT: Where are the banks on this? Are they receptive to meeting with you?

Mike: I don't think... no. (laughs) The bad behavior that we've witnessed has been stunning. Like the workers that Ben is speaking about that worked in the call center here talked about conditions that were absolutely horrific, where they weren't allowed to go to the bathroom, one elderly worker was told that she should wear a diaper instead of even asking when she had a health condition. We are talking about the way we picture factory conditions were at the turn of the century. They're just trying to get as much out of working people as they possibly can.

The thing that we don't think about though is that bank workers around the world like Europe and South America are organized. They're in unions. They brought their call centers here because we were the cheap labor. That was part of the motivation, and that just indicates something frightening...

JT: Fundamentally wrong.

Mike: It is a lack of strength. Bank workers represent the least organized sector of industry in the United States. They should be the most organized, because of their strategic importance, and also the value of their job, and the value of their humanity. We should be looking at the respect that every worker, but bank workers in particular are folks that we deal with every day, part of our communities, and that have been treated with disrespect for so long. It used to be a good job, and now not so much.

We're reaching out to bank workers, actively, trying to get organizers out into the field to try to get conversations going with workers who are in the front lines of the industry. We've reached out to over a hundred so far and have had some pretty amazing conversations. Of course, any organizing effort carries with it this fear. Organizing is hard, and it takes time, but it has been pretty rewarding for the folks that have been going out. The conversations that I've had with women like Judith are, of course, priceless. That's why we do it.

Jobs with Justice's goal is to get as many workers into collective bargaining agreements as possible. We want to see workers in unions making decisions about their workplaces. That's our long term goal.