As President Trump and his fellow Republicans roll back banking regulations, many reformers are looking for other ways to build a safer and more accountable financial sector. Progressive politicians still call for breaking up the biggest banks and for similar top-down structural changes. But there’s another mechanism for accountability that needs to be more widely discussed: improving the working conditions of low-level employees. Why not unionize the financial sector as part of a reform agenda? This idea of “regulation from below”—a strategy coined by labor activists Stephen Lerner, Rita Berlofa, and Molly McGrath—would be an important fix.
You can see how bad working conditions lead to bad behavior by looking at what went wrong at Wells Fargo. The bosses there insisted that workers meet punishing sales goals. They demanded that their employees sell customers additional products they didn’t need, like car mortgages or home loans. This created an environment where workers felt compelled to create fake and unauthorized accounts to reach these corporate benchmarks—the kind of abuse that could easily be checked if employees had a say in their own working conditions.
Regulation from below is the perfect complement to “regulations from above”—the ones that address the size of banks, their activities, and their balance sheets to keep them from threatening the entire economy. Such regulations are essential, but they present two major problems.
The first is that it’s easy for conservatives to simply disregard regulations once they’re in power. Republicans can look the other way and appoint regulators who aren’t interested in doing their jobs. The FBI and others were aware of the extensive fraud that existed in subprime mortgages in the early 2000s, but the Federal Reserve ignored it because policy-makers assumed that markets take care of themselves. Unions, however, are self-reinforcing, since they’re guided by workers.
The second problem is that a top-down approach is bad at catching corporate malfeasance. Even in the wake of the financial crisis, there have been numerous scandals in high-end finance, from money laundering to the manipulation of interest rates. Yet the criminal prosecution of corporate offenders has lagged under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Though unions wouldn’t necessarily affect the behavior of executives further up the chain, they would provide a safer environment for whistle-blowers and those who want to hold their own firms accountable. Even if a new Democratic president appoints regulators who take these issues seriously, there’s only so much they can cover in an industry this vast. Putting workers into play on the side of accountability helps accomplish this goal.
And because the financial system is so massive, unionizing would also improve the lives of millions of employees. The six largest banks alone have over 700,000 workers in the United States. That’s about the same as the total number who work in the country’s mining and resource-extraction industries. It’s also a workforce that isn’t going anywhere and will only grow as the service industries, including financial services, become a larger part of the economy. Organizing them will create a middle class for the future.
Those at the top of the financial sector make a lot of money and constitute a disproportionate number of the 1 percent. Yet, as in most industries, their high wages are built on the labor of people making far less. This was seen in 2016, when JPMorgan Chase raised its minimum wage from $10.15 to between $12 and $16.50 an hour for 18,000 employees—in a year when the bank’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, made $28 million. There are half a million bank tellers in the country, and their median wage is only $13.50 an hour. Finance isn’t all billionaires; for most people in the sector, it’s a blue-collar job.
There’s a level of dignity that should be associated with work. Workers shouldn’t face injury or death, sexual harassment, or poverty. And they also shouldn’t be forced to commit fraud. Workers should be organized for the sake of their own agency. But it’s an added bonus that unionizing the finance industry would also help stabilize the sector itself.