Last summer in Gibsons, a small town clinging to the coast north of Vancouver, 26-year-old Kathryn Cooney and her dozen or so fellow employees at the Royal Bank joined the United Bank Workers. The Canada Labor Relations Board had just handed down a historic decision allowing unions to organize banks branch by branch, instead of having to sign up a majority of the Royal’s 32,523 employees in order to be certified to bargain for them. Cooney and her co-workers felt they could at last have a say about their salaries and working conditions, and that the thousands of women employees at the bottom of Canada’s banking pyramid might hope to become something more than tellers of money. By November the UBW’s Royal local at Gibsons was certified. But now, 10 months later, the Gibsons workers have that lost-in-the-wilderness feeling: their union has told them it is asking that certification be withdrawn from 22 of the 24 branches it had signed up in British Columbia. In Vancouver, the leaders of the spunky, largely volunteer-run UBW, the little union that dared to tackle the financial giants, blamed big labor as well as big business for its forced retreat. But at Gibsons, Kathryn Cooney put a banker’s knowing finger on the problems: “The UBW filled peoples’ heads with a lot of dreams but nothing definite ever seemed to hap-
pen. The momma birds didn’t have enough worms to feed the baby birds.”
Although some labor observers seem to think the UBW will just fade away, a visit to union headquarters in Vancouver suggests otherwise—nobody seems disheartened. Charlotte Johnson, a UBW founder and president, fervently denies that it’s abandoning its members. “The union will still protect them. It was the members themselves who made the decision. We will continue to try to raise money and increase our membership until we are strong enough to sustain ourselves. We could not afford to pay people to negotiate, neither were we in a strong enough position to strike.” (Bank branches have varied widely in their reactions to being organized. At Gibsons “the Commerce let go two people who were heavily into the union and there was picketing,” says Kathryn Cooney. “But here at the Royal nobody has said a word to us.”) A breakdown in labor solidarity also appeared to be involved. Several B.C. unions affiliated with the Canadian Labor Congress for a time made donations to the independent UBW but these have dwindled, reportedly under pressure from the CLC hierarchy. UBW, a section of the 235-
member Service, Office and Retail Workers Union, may have been tinged by SORWUC’s philosophical differences with the CLC. Founded in 1972 to organize working women across all union jurisdictions, SORWUC has been running afoul of the CLC’s principle that men and women should bargain together. Says Linda Read, a UBW trustee and an ex-teller at the Bank of Montreal, “The CLC has not behaved responsibly, but they’re naïve if they think they’re going to succeed where we haven’t.”
Actually, no less than four different unions are currently courting the country’s 130,000 bank employees, and the presidents of Canada’s big five chartered banks have no cause to doze comfortably in the tonneaus of their Sevilles. Labor’s campaign may not be unified but with 7,000 local bank branches waiting to be organized, the unions feel there are plenty to go around.
Smallest, apart from the UBW, is the Office and Technical Employees Union, which has been certified at several B.C. branches. Biggest is the CLC which recently turned its Canadian Union of Bank Employees into a Bank Workers Committee designed to help any CLC local that wants to try organizing a bank. Says committee director Laraine Singler, “Only a coordinated effort by several unions under a CLC umbrella stands a chance.” However, by midsummer Singler’s campaign had won certification for only 17 branches nationwide.
The union that seems to be most active in banking circles and to have the juiciest supply of worms to feed the baby birds is the Retail Clerks International Union. Pierre-François Bovin, assistant director for Canada, says RCIU has won nine certifications with eight or nine others pending, and owes its success to employing the principle that it takes a banker to catch a banker. It has hired 22 former bank employees to organize branches coast to coast, thanks to “some millions of dollars” provided by the union’s Washington headquarters.
Bovin deplores the setback suffered in B.C. by the United Bank Workers, which while it has signed up 700 bank staffers has only 100 full paid-up members. “It would be a shame if UBW goes down the tube,” says Bovin. “If they let all their certifications go, there will be transfers and firings and harassment from the banks.” He also says his Retail Clerks have discussed with UBW taking over their certifications, but in Vancouver UBW union organizer Jackie Ainsworth says no way—members have been told they are free to join any union they wish. She pooh-poohs Bovin’s predictions of harassment: “You can’t fire or harass a person because they belong to a union. It’s against the law. In fact, the banks have been very generous. Now they are saying ‘No hard feelings,’ and stuff like that. Sort of sickening, really.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.