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What’s behind a union’s full-court press to take down BofA’s Kenneth Lewis?

A labor union’s drive to force changes at Bank of America Corp. will soon reach a boiling point. And some are beginning to question the motives behind the group’s barrage of advertisements and petitions.

The Service Employees International Union, an organization with more than 2 million members, and Change To Win Investment Group, a union pension fund that owns BofA shares, are making the BofA effort a top priority for the next two weeks. Union reps will appear on TV news shows and produce YouTube videos, circulate “fact sheets” on the bank, host petitions and protests outside bank offices and offer to make disgruntled BofA employees available to reporters to push their message.

But observers and even competing bankers say the attack has a broader goal: to push labor reforms that would help unions form at BofA and other banks.

“They’re after blood. They’re chumming the waters for sharks,” UNC Charlotte finance professor Tony Plath says of the union’s campaign. “I’m not a cheerleader for BofA. But let’s be objective about this: These attacks are all about card check.”

Charlotte Business Journal - by Adam O’Daniel Staff writer
A labor union’s drive to force changes at Bank of America Corp. will soon reach a boiling point. And some are beginning to question the motives behind the group’s barrage of advertisements and petitions.

The Service Employees International Union, an organization with more than 2 million members, and Change To Win Investment Group, a union pension fund that owns BofA shares, are making the BofA effort a top priority for the next two weeks. Union reps will appear on TV news shows and produce YouTube videos, circulate “fact sheets” on the bank, host petitions and protests outside bank offices and offer to make disgruntled BofA employees available to reporters to push their message.

And that message?

SEIU is collecting thousands of “taxpayer proxies” that call for BofA Chief Executive and Chairman Kenneth Lewis to be fired. Organizers plan to deliver them to BofA headquarters uptown on April 29 before the bank’s annual meeting that day.

“Taxpayers are now the biggest shareholders in the bank,” says SEIU executive Stephen Lerner, referring to the $45 billion in government capital on BofA’s books. “Every taxpayer should have the opportunity to vote.”

The group won’t disclose how much it is spending on the campaign.

The union is sponsoring a resolution at the annual meeting to have Lewis removed as the bank’s chairman. And it will likely stage protests outside the meeting.

The same group circulated a petition this spring asking President Obama to fire Lewis in the wake of Rick Waggoner’s ouster as General Motors Corp. chief executive.

A broader agenda
But observers and even competing bankers say the attack has a broader goal: to push labor reforms that would help unions form at BofA and other banks.

“They’re after blood. They’re chumming the waters for sharks,” UNC Charlotte finance professor Tony Plath says of the union’s campaign. “I’m not a cheerleader for BofA. But let’s be objective about this: These attacks are all about card check.”

Taking the fight to BofA, Plath and others suggest, allows the union to build support for proposed federal legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act, commonly called “card check.” It would allow unions to form by way of a majority, public vote. Secret ballots would no longer be required.

BofA officials say the bank hasn’t taken a position on the legislation. A spokesman declines to speculate on the union’s motives for its campaign, but he does say some of its materials are misleading.

“We’re not trying to pick a fight with SEIU. Some of their members are loyal customers,” BofA spokesman Robert Stickler says. “On the other hand, we’re trying to set the record straight. A lot of their information is inaccurate.” (See related story.)

Plath believes the SEIU is seizing the opportunity to raise the profile of its agenda. BofA is an easy target, he says, because it has been embroiled in controversy. By accusing a major company such as BofA of abusing consumers and workers, labor groups stand to gain support in Congress for changes, Plath says.

“It’s not a coincidence that one of the unions that would benefit most from some changes (to labor laws) is going after Bank of America,” he says.

Bert Ely, a banking consultant based in Washington, says banks historically have resisted union organization. There are no unionized banks in the United States. But he expects recent government intervention in the financial sector to fuel union attempts to gain influence.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this is to try and create a political climate where Congress will mandate banks have some form of community or union representation on their boards,” Ely says. “There are certainly broader agendas at play.”

Teller unions?
There is speculation among local bankers that the SEIU would like to form teller unions. And the SEIU mentions teller salaries and complaints in some of its anti-BofA literature.

“I think the Bank of America attacks are really misguided,” the president of a local competing bank says. “The calls to fire Ken Lewis just don’t make sense. Who is going to do a better job? You don’t change CEOs right now.”

Lerner, the SEIU executive organizing the efforts, says the union is focused on leveling the playing field for consumers and workers who feel “betrayed” by mega-banks.

He criticizes BofA for its account fees, credit-card rate hikes and wages paid to lower-level employees.

“It’s time to expose Bank of America’s abuse of consumers, mistreatment of employees, and dangerous self-serving profit model,” the union says in its recent literature.

But Lerner also acknowledges that building stronger unions is part of the mission, and he feels BofA’s leadership opposes changes to union laws.

“We need to put more money in people’s pockets, and one of the best ways to do that is by restoring the ability of people to join together and form unions,” he says. “We think bank workers and all kinds of workers should have that ability to form unions.”

Plath says the SEIU’s focused attack on BofA’s banking policies is misguided because the bank follows industrywide practices. He contends BofA’s methods of business and customer fees are all in line with those of its competitors.

“SEIU needs to tell the whole story,” Plath says. “You’ve gotta criticize the entire industry’s practices, not just one company. Bank of America doesn’t do anything different than the others. They’re probably better than some of their peers in some practices.”

The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index ranks BofA second to Wachovia Corp. in customer satisfaction, ahead of peers such as Wells Fargo & Co. and Citigroup Inc.

Still, Lerner says BofA is the prime target because it leads the field.

“Bank of America is the biggest. They set the trends,” he says. “If Bank of America did something different, because they’re so big, it would force others to follow.”

FACT OR FICTION?

The Service Employees International Union has made accusations about Bank of America’s practices and policies. Here are a few of the claims and the facts:

SEIU claim: Bank of America participated in “risky profit schemes,” such as subprime mortgages.

Fact-check: BofA stopped issuing subprime mortgages in 2001. The bank did participate in some of the more exotic investments tied to the housing boom.

SEIU claim: BofA is the “poster child” for corporate excess. The union cites bonuses handed out at Merrill Lynch & Co. and former Merrill CEO John Thain’s lavish office renovations.

Fact-check: SEIU is right about huge bonuses and expensive office renovations. The problem is that Bank of America didn’t own Merrill when those actions took place. There’s room for debate about how much BofA knew about the Merrill bonuses late last year. But the office renovations took place months before a BofA-Merrill merger was discussed.

SEIU claim: BofA preys on consumers with overdraft fees and credit-card rate hikes.

Fact-check: The bank does have some of the highest overdraft fees in the industry, according to Bankrate.com. However, competitors such as Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. charge similar fees. BofA also this week decided to back off from its plans to raise overdraft fees on account holders. As for credit cards, BofA’s recently announced rate hikes give borrowers the option to keep the lower rate if they agree to make no new purchases with the card.

SEIU claim: BofA is actively fighting the Employee Free Choice Act.

Fact-check: BofA says it hasn’t taken an official position on the issue and denies it lobbies lawmakers to oppose it. Some trade groups with ties to BofA, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are aggressively fighting the legislation.

Posted by Admin on 04/17 at 11:38 AM
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Immigration Accord by Labor Boosts Obama Effort (click for full article)

The nation’s two major labor federations have agreed for the first time to join forces to support an overhaul of the immigration system, leaders of both organizations said on Monday. The accord could give President Obama significant support among unions as he revisits the stormy issue in the midst of the recession.

John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Joe T. Hansen, a leader of the rival Change to Win federation, will present the outlines of their new position on Tuesday in Washington. In 2007, when Congress last considered comprehensive immigration legislation, the two groups could not agree on a common approach. That legislation failed.

“In our current economic crisis, Americans cannot afford to lose more jobs to illegal workers,” said Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican who sits on the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. “American workers are depending on President Obama to protect their jobs from those in America illegally.”

April 14, 2009
Immigration Accord by Labor Boosts Obama Effort
By JULIA PRESTON and STEVEN GREENHOUSE

The nation’s two major labor federations have agreed for the first time to join forces to support an overhaul of the immigration system, leaders of both organizations said on Monday. The accord could give President Obama significant support among unions as he revisits the stormy issue in the midst of the recession.

John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Joe T. Hansen, a leader of the rival Change to Win federation, will present the outlines of their new position on Tuesday in Washington. In 2007, when Congress last considered comprehensive immigration legislation, the two groups could not agree on a common approach. That legislation failed.

The accord endorses legalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the United States and opposes any large new program for employers to bring in temporary immigrant workers, officials of both federations said.

“The labor movement will work together to make sure that the White House as well as Congress understand that we speak about immigration reform with one voice,” Mr. Sweeney said in a statement to The New York Times.

But while the compromise repaired one fissure in the coalition that has favored broad immigration legislation, it appeared to open another. An official from the United States Chamber of Commerce said Monday that the business community remained committed to a significant guest-worker program.

“If the unions think they’re going to push a bill through without the support of the business community, they’re crazy,” said Randel Johnson, the chamber’s vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits. “There’s only going to be one shot at immigration reform. As part of the trade-off for legalization, we need to expand the temporary worker program.”

The common labor position is also unlikely to convince many opponents that an immigration overhaul would not harm American workers. When Obama administration officials said last week that the president intended to push Congress this year to take up an immigration bill that would include a path to legal status for the country’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, critics criticized the approach as amnesty for lawbreakers.

“In our current economic crisis, Americans cannot afford to lose more jobs to illegal workers,” said Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican who sits on the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. “American workers are depending on President Obama to protect their jobs from those in America illegally.”

The two labor federations have agreed in the past to proposals that would give legal status to illegal immigrants. But in 2007 the A.F.L.-C.I.O. parted ways with the service employees and several other unions when it did not support legislation put forth by the Bush administration because it contained provisions for an expanded guest-worker program.

In the new accord, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Change to Win have called for managing future immigration of workers through a national commission. The commission would determine how many permanent and temporary foreign workers should be admitted each year based on demand in American labor markets. Union officials are confident that the result would reduce worker immigration during times of high unemployment like the present.

Mr. Hansen, who is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said in an interview that the joint proposal was a “building block to go forward to get immigration reform up on the agenda in Congress” sometime this year.

Thousands of immigrant farm workers and other low-wage laborers come to the United States through seasonal guest-worker programs that are subject to numerical visa limits and have been criticized by employers as rigid and inefficient. Many unions oppose the programs because the immigrants are tied to one employer and cannot change jobs no matter how abusive the conditions, so union officials say they undercut conditions for American workers. Highly skilled foreign technology engineers and medical specialists also come on temporary visas.

Advocates for immigrants said a unified labor movement could substantially bolster their position as they push for legislation to restructure the ailing immigration system.

“It shows how important the issue is to the representatives of American workers,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocate group.

A.F.L.-C.I.O. officials said they agreed with Change to Win leaders that, with more than seven million unauthorized immigrants already working across the nation, legalizing their status would be the most effective way to protect labor standards for all workers.

“We have developed a joint strategy with the approach framed around workers’ rights,” said Ana Avendaño, associate general counsel of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

Labor leaders said that they would talk with other groups in coming weeks to nail down details of a common position, and that they would then would work in Congress and with the Obama administration to try to ensure that their proposal was part of any bill offered for debate.

Also supporting the compromise is Eliseo Medina, an executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, a member of Change to Win with hundreds of thousands of members who are immigrants. The Change to Win federation was formed in 2005 with seven unions that broke away from the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

The plan for a labor commission to monitor and control levels of worker immigration was developed with help from Ray Marshall, a labor secretary under President Jimmy Carter. Over the past year, Mr. Marshall, at the request of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., has been consulting between the two federations and with a variety of Hispanic organizations and advocate groups for immigrants.

“All these groups understand that one of the main reasons they lost before was that they were not together,” Mr. Marshall said.

According to a list of principles the labor leaders will present on Tuesday, they are proposing a “depoliticized,” independent commission that “can assess labor market needs on an ongoing basis and — based on a methodology to be approved by Congress — determine the number of foreign workers to be admitted for employment purposes.”

Mr. Johnson, the Chamber of Commerce official, said, “A commission doesn’t get us there.”

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a group that organizes businesses to support comprehensive immigration legislation, agreed that employers would have many questions about the approach.

“The question is, Will the commission work?” Ms. Jacoby said. “Will it be adequately attuned to and triggered by the labor market? A system that may — or may not — supply the workers that business will need in the future after the recession will be a cause of great concern to employers.”

Posted by Admin on 04/14 at 10:36 AM
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