First and Foremost, the Wells Fargo Scandal Is About Workers

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StartFragmentThe revelations of the bank’s outrageous behavior were in large part a product of a three-year effort to organize frontline workers. EndFragment

When U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez pledged last week to conduct a “top-to-bottom” probe into allegations that Wells Fargo’s aggressive sales quotas created a culture that led to rampant labor law violations, he underscored the fact that at the root of the scandal is a whole sector of exploited workers who not only often make paltry wages and rely on public assistance, but also say they were forced to work late, without overtime pay, to meet impossible sales goals, or were fired or demoted for refusing to open fake accounts to meet those goals.

Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf has tried to scapegoat his bank’s low-level employees and tellers, contending that the problem was limited to 5,300 workers who allegedly opened fraudulent accounts to get sales incentives, and were promptly fired once discovered, and that he had no knowledge of the rampant fraud.

Wells Fargo CEO John Stupmpf testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 29, 2-16 (Photo: AP/Cliff Owen)

“You squeezed your employees to the breaking point so they would cheat customers and you could drive up the value of your stock and put hundreds of millions of dollars in your own pocket,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said during her now-viral grilling of the CEO at a congressional hearing.

Despite the extensive media coverage of the scandal, it’s gone almost entirely unnoticed that the revelations of the bank’s outrageous behavior were in large part a product of a three-year effort led by the union-backed Committee for Better Banks to organize frontline workers across the retail banking sector and to advocate for higher wages, an end to sales quotas, and ultimately, access to a union.

“This campaign has been going on for a long time. Wells Fargo is playing dumb that they had no idea this was going on.”

“We had sales quotas as a defining issue from the get-go,” Committee for Better Banks organizer Reuben Traite told the Prospect in an interview. “This campaign has been going on for a long time. Wells Fargo is playing dumb that they had no idea this was going on.”

After the Los Angeles Times reported that about 30 Wells Fargo employees in the L.A. area had opened fake accounts to meet exorbitant sales goals, the committee launched an online petition calling on the bank to end its sales goal “obsession,” which ultimately garnered more than 11,000 signatures. Bank workers brought the petition signatures to several local bank branches, and then to the 2015 shareholders meeting in St. Louis as they tried to publicize the detrimental impacts of high sales quotas on both workers and consumers. The group helped several workers file the complaints with local and federal agencies that are now credited with blowing the scandal wide open.

Ruth Landaverde worked as a credit manager for Wells Fargo in California where, from 2009 to 2010, she pushed mortgage refinancing, auto loans, and credit cards on a database full of current and past customers. The sales quotas that she and her colleagues had to meet increased out of nowhere, and managers were relentless about their meeting them. “Every hour we were there, it was: How are your numbers? How are your numbers? Where are you at?” she told the Prospect. If someone questioned the rationale behind the increased quotas, Landaverde says, management lambasted them. “The bonuses weren’t great. Everyone [was] always stressed out. The branch manager was getting very aggressive towards me,” she explains. “‘If you can’t hack it, get out of here.’ That was the culture.”

After about a year, Landaverde said the stress and pressure from above became too much and she quit.

Later on, she began working for Bank of America, thinking the culture there might be different, eventually taking a position as a personal banker. There, she quickly realized that Bank of America was no different. She said she was expected to open 100 new accounts per month—but only ones that had monthly fees attached would count toward the quota. Additionally, new credit card accounts were only counted if the customer used it at least once, so bankers were told to track the accounts and call up customers and tell them to use their credit cards. She said she knew other personal bankers who would fudge a customer’s income—say from $35,000 to $50,000—in order to get them approved for a certain product. Still other bankers, she says, opened accounts without customer permission.

She says the investigator began accusing her left and right, no matter what Landaverde said, and recommended she resign.

The pressure was coming down hard from above and Landaverde said she was getting reprimanded for not hitting her quotas. Each quarter, they got higher and higher. By the summer of 2015, after almost two years with Bank of America, it was becoming too much. She started developing a tic in her eye and had problems sleeping; her doctor told her that she needed to go on stress leave for a month. When she got back from her leave, she found out a fraud investigator was looking to talk with her. Landaverde had opened a bank account for her roommate who had needed a new bank after moving from the East Coast. Apparently, since they shared the same address, the account had been flagged, as the bank was on higher alert for suspicious activity. She says the investigator began accusing her left and right, no matter what Landaverde said, and recommended she resign. Landaverde refused, saying she was merely opening new accounts like she was supposed to—one just happened to be for her roommate. It was then, she says, that they fired her.

“It was just a witch hunt that they were doing. They are not willing to work for you,” Landaverde says. “It was unbelievable. Everything was backwards. They just get an agenda from senior execs—whatever their goal is, they don’t care about the frontline worker.”

In a report by The Washington Post last month, Bank of America declined to comment on Landaverde’s story. Landaverde is now a member of both the Committee for Better Banks and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, a grassroots group that works on banking issues and is pushing the city of Los Angeles to cease business with banks that utilize high-pressure sales quotas.

Earlier last month, amid heated public outcry, Wells Fargo announced that it would end its practice of using sales quotas. Traite called the move a “testament to the workers’ organizing efforts” and a “step in our bigger campaign” to expose how these harmful quotas are not limited to Wells Fargo.

There’s a growing realization, as confirmed by a report in June by the National Employment Law Project, that Landaverde’s story is not unique, that widespread fraud driven by lofty sales quotas is industry-wide, and that paying fair wages and unionizing the banking sector—common practices in many other countries—is a critical way to begin fixing the sector from the bottom up.

In an op-ed for The Daily Beast, Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison declared: “In order to end these predatory practices, financial services sector employees should be given a seat at the table and allowed to collectively bargain. This will protect them and their customers. No company should force workers to make a choice between selling potentially harmful products to their customers and keeping their paycheck.”

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