Sam Myerson, until recently a worker at one of the big banks, spoke to Solidarity.
Until a few months ago I worked in IT, for one of the big six in the UK. We were a ‘global team’, working with colleagues in many countries in Europe and Asia. I did that job for six years and different jobs in the same organisation before that.
I don’t think the issues we faced were unique to my company. From working with others I have the impression it is similar across the sector. A lot of the changes we had to manage were driven fundamentally by cost-cutting, by attempts to eliminate human labour from various processes. Our team itself fell victim to that; when I started it was a dozen people but by the time I lost my job only two.
What we were doing was very rarely driven by improving the service people receive. It was always dressed up as freeing people’s availability so they could do more productive work, directly supporting customers, but those things were never realised. Instead we’ve seen decades and decades of cost-cutting at the expense of jobs.
There’s a big long-term push from many of these organisations to get rid of workers in the UK and replace them with workers on much worse terms and conditions in India and China, for instance, although that is less the case in some of the banks.
What response does that get from workers here?
In my experience it broadly falls into two camps. There is some nationalistic stuff, and a thing people say about workers in other countries not having English language skills, which I find pretty ridiculous as English is my first language – but with my accent there are plenty of people who struggle to understand what I’m saying.
The main response is people feeling that it’s inevitable. However, there is very widespread consciousness that the basic motivation is to expand a workforce that can be treated worse than we can. People say that all the time. So there’s a threat of positive consciousness there, but instead of pulling it Unite wraps itself in the Union Jack.
Do you know what the total workforce is?
There are over 1.1m financial services jobs, but in banking specifically I don’t know, except to say it’s getting smaller! The managerial workforce is predominantly male and the actual workforce predominantly female, so when you have this purging of jobs it’s predominantly a purging of women’s jobs.
What other issues do workers face?
For office workers rather than those working in a bank branch, surveillance technology is a big issue. Even pre-pandemic surveillance technologies were spreading fast among office workers in general, but it’s certainly a thing in finance. Lots of tech players have developed technologies that monitor even your mouse movements, what keys you press and so on. So employers have a record of that.
Obviously a big element of this is that it suppresses your ability to communicate with colleagues and therefore to organise, but also even just to have a culture of talking about things at work. As a knock on effect that really impacts people’s mental health too.
Unite talks about these problems – I’ve attended discussions where it’s talked about – but essentially has nothing to say about how we would challenge or get round them.
What’s the situation with unions generally?
In 2005 Amicus led clerical workers at HSBC out over pay. They balloted for strike action, advised members to reject, went out and won. That was before I started in the sector. Since then I don’t know of any serious action. Worse than that, little basic recruiting, much less organising, takes place.
There’s a whole load of different unions in the sector. Accord are in Lloyds and its affiliated businesses, there’s Advance in Santander, there’s Aegis, there’s NGSU specifically for the Nationwide Group, and also Community, CWU, GMB, Unison and Usdaw as well as Unite. CWU is mainly contact-centre workers. Unite has inherited the Amicus operation.
I don’t know about density; it’s generally low but I think there are patches of strength, for instance Barclays call centres in the North East apparently have a Unite presence.
Unite does bits and pieces about issues like working time, breaks and bad managers. Fundamentally though it’s a service model, not one of helping workers organise.
Across the sector, there’s been no real attempt to resist on issues like the below inflationary pay rises, attacks on terms and conditions – for instance attacks on sick pay and a shift away from final salary pensions – and of course the issue of job losses. Of course the holding down of pay and the slashing of pensions is being done by managements who are taking home huge salaries and give themselves fat bonuses.
I do think some union bureaucrats feel, well the public think bank workers are scum, that we’re greedy bankers too, so they can’t go out and argue for us. I remember when I started just after the financial crisis; I was a cashier in a branch and you’d get venom, including from people making a lot more money than you did. Most workers in the sector are not at all well-paid.
In fact if bank workers’ organisation were stronger, I think a lot of the scandals about the way the public are treated, PPI mis-selling and aggressive pursuit of profits and so on, would be much harder for the companies to get away with.
The finance sector is not just something to be reviled or otherwise ignored. It is necessary for society and has a far-reaching impact on everyone’s lives. To sort of imply finance per se is evil and we don’t need it is a reactionary viewpoint. We need rational socialist solutions instead.
So in effect the labour movement has let the bank bosses off the hook?
Yes, 100pc. The unions have let down workers in the sector, but also failed to give solutions to the wider working class.
How would public ownership make a difference?
I’d want to emphasise that at present it’s very hard to get information about what banks are doing and how they function. In general they are very secretive organisations. In some ways they are in the public spotlight but it’s superficial; in lots of ways they are not at all.
In a publicly owned system, to start with, we could reimagine what the services we provide look like. We could smash apart the bits of the sector that are basically predatory. There’s a long road of changing society to travel before we can get rid of credit, but to start with these things can be done in a totally different way. As it is if you’ve got loads of money you can borrow cheaply, but only if you’re well off – not if you haven’t got any.
Most people’s interaction with a bank or financial institution is just because they need a basic service; but unless you’re generating income for the institution, the help you get is probably going to be pretty minimal. If the industry was run for the benefit of the public, breaking the link with shareholder-payouts, that would let us reshape the way the industry is run and a lot of the behaviour patterns that are currently programmed in could be changed.
If we had a publicly-owned financial sector it could be put to work supporting and funding all the things we need now, in local government, in social care, creating green jobs…
For workers it would mean we could re-establish and improve our terms and conditions; but it would also mean we would no longer have to work to serve really anti-social purposes.
The problem is I think the unions have largely accepted that no one is going to take a positive interest in the sector and so they treat it differently from how they treat other critical industries. Both Unite and the TUC have policy for public ownership [see here], but it’s never talked about.
Was there any discussion about this back in the years after 2008, when some of the banks were in theory nationalised?
Not so much in my place, which wasn’t directly propped up in that way. More generally, the workers weren’t mostly very left-leaning! I’ve got to say even social-democratic arguments didn’t go down all that well… There’s a lot of belief in the wisdom of capitalist experts and also that it’s reasonable for workers to have to compete rather than fighting upwards for better pay and conditions. When the Corbyn stuff was on I had a few colleagues who were enthusiastic but more who were regurgitating tabloid talking-points.
If Unite started arguing for public ownership tomorrow, it would probably fall on quite stony ground at the start. Again, that’s a reason for the bureaucrats’ reticence. It would take a while, possibly a long time, but at least if the argument was made you’d have a possibility to shift it.
Unite members' representatives have agreed this policy; Unite should make the argument, stand by it, argue for it, convince people. It doesn’t just make sense in some “wouldn’t it be nice” way. It’s critical. Look at climate change. There’s no way we’re going to break the way the banks fund fossil fuels without public ownership.
Unite and other unions are pretty weak on arguing for public ownership in general, but there does seem to be a particular and glaring weakness here.
I recently had a look at what Unite is saying about sick pay. Even that is very weak actually.
Absolutely. The union also lined up and clapped and cheered the 20% pay cut many workers got on furlough. No admission even that this was a concession; it was a great victory.
What about the argument that finance is very much an international system, so nationalisation in one country just isn’t going to work?
That sounds very much like “It’s too hard so we shouldn’t do it”. Come on.
We live in a global society. Energy isn’t purely national either. Neither are lots of industries. Finance is interlinked globally, of course; but as a first step you would take national parts of organisations, which are already demarcated within these institutions. Then of course you extend it internationally.
If we have a campaign here which can win public ownership of the banks, obviously we need to talk about it being an international demand, and build alliances in other countries with workers making similar demands.