Wells Fargo branch in Bethel files for unprecedented union elections

a Wells Fargo bank
The Wells Fargo branch in Bethel, Alaska. Nov. 21, 2023. (MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

A wave of victories in recent months by major American unions like the Teamsters, United Automobile Workers, the Writers Guild of America, and the Screen Actors Guild have had rippling effects all the way to the local branch of a bank in rural Southwest Alaska.

Bethel’s Wells Fargo, along with a branch in Albuquerque, New Mexico, filed paperwork to form a new union called the Communications Workers of America’s Wells Fargo Workers United (WFWU) on Nov. 20.

One of the group’s focuses is better wages. Jewel Tootkaylok has been working as a bank teller for Wells Fargo on and off since 2016. She currently makes $31.50 an hour and, according to Tootkalyok, that has not increased in several years, even as groceries, gas, and electricity have increased.

“We’ve all gone through the COVID. We’ve all gone through the inflation prices,” Tootkaylok said. “My wages are still $31.50. My apartment used to be $2,000; it is now $2,500. I’m just lucky enough that I have a spouse who is able to help me so that I don’t have to pick up a second job to take care of me and my family. That’s one of the biggest things that I am worried about.”

Tootkaylok is married and has a toddler. She said that her struggle to make rent in recent years made unionizing an easy choice.

“I believe they would help create a better working environment, not only for myself, but for my current colleagues and the employees that come after us in ways, like, we get compensated the appropriate wages, and that we have paid sick leave separate from our paid time off leave,” she said. “Those are two of the biggest concerns that I have.”

Tootkaylok said that the Wells Fargo branch in Bethel has five non-management employees, but they serve the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. She said that unionizing could also positively impact customer service.

“So back in 2020, they had gotten rid of our commercial on business banking position within our branch. And that position was in charge of helping our surrounding villages and our tribal organizations throughout the Y-K Delta,” she said. “And since then, we haven’t been really able to help those organizations at branch level. We’ve had to rendezvous them through different phone lines, and to centralize teams that aren’t even in Alaska. And they deserve better from us; we should be able to help them right away.”

Customers have been encouraged to use online customer service or mobile apps, but internet access in rural Alaska isn’t always reliable and resilient, as was exposed after the Quintillion undersea fiber-optic cable was severed this summer. During the break, online banking wasn’t an option for many predominantly Alaska Native communities, exposing banking equity issues in the region.

In a written statement, Wells Fargo’s CEO of Consumer, Small & Business Banking Sal Van Beurden said that the company is making efforts to increase compensation and benefits for employees on several fronts. But Van Beurden did not directly address union efforts in his statement.

“For the last four years, we made health care more affordable for lower paid employees by decreasing the portion they pay of total costs, increased median base salaries by 26% for those making less than $50,000, reduced the required workdays for those in many of our branches, and increased staffing levels in branches where weneeded to help support our employees and ultimately our customers,” he wrote.

Wells Fargo workers in two other cities filed a series of Unfair Labor Practice charges earlier this year, alleging that the bank sought to illegally restrict fledgling union activity by intimidating and retaliating against organizing workers. The National Labor Relations Board found that in Salt Lake City, Utah and Hillsboro, Ore., Wells Fargo broke the law when managers routinely tore down union flyers and implied workers would be reprimanded if they continued to post flyers.

The worker organizing effort at Wells Fargo is the first of its kind at a major bank in the United States.

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