While millions of households suffer under the worst cost of living crisis in generations, there’s one group of businesses that are certainly not feeling the pinch – British banks. Over the last year alone, the UK banking sector’s overall profits have smashed records, surging by 200 per cent.
Why is it then that ordinary bank workers, such as branch staff and call centre workers, are seeing their already low pay being swallowed whole by skyrocketing inflation – even as shareholders and banking executives are raking it in like never before?
This is a question that Unite finance sector has relentlessly pressed the big banks on, and thanks to a coordinated pay campaign the strategy is beginning to pay off in spades.
In June, Unite celebrated a major win after Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) said it would award its staff a £1000 cost of living pay bonus following pressure from the union.
Unite Lloyds rep Dean Perry said that the origins of the campaign began with pay talks at LBG last year, just when it started to become clear that an unprecedented cost of living crisis was on the horizon.
“What made this campaign unique was that we went out with the intention to educate our members about the impact of inflation and how that would affect the pound in people’s pockets,” he explained. “We really focused on making it relevant to our members’ everyday lives, like shopping and covering everyday bills. That landed really well and as a result, after we balloted our members, they rejected the pay offer, primarily due to the LBG pay offer being below inflation and not going far enough to support them through this cost of living crisis.”
This led to Unite going into an informal dispute with the bank. Now that the emerging pay campaign had widespread buy-in from members, Unite reps collaborating together through a new finance ‘combine’ – a network of reps from the same sector – got to work targeting Lloyds’ Annual General Meeting (AGM) in May.
“We placed a really powerful spotlight on the issues our members were facing at the AGM demo,” Dean explained. “We highlighted the insufficient level of support our members were receiving compared to the astonishing wealth being lavished on shareholders.”
Indeed, Unite underlined that Lloyds had given £1.4bn to its shareholders in dividend payments – as well as a share buy-back scheme worth £2bn – on the back of substantial profits of £5.9bn last year.
“We educated our members at LBG about share buy-backs and who really benefits from them,” Dean noted. “We found there was a lot of ignorance on this matter. We used the £2bn share buy-backs to shareholders figure to highlight that LBG could clearly afford to pay its employees more.”
In comparison to executives and shareholders, feedback gathered from the workforce showed just how badly members working for Lloyds were suffering as inflation eroded their wages. Many reported that they would not be able to afford to heat their homes, while others said that they had no other option but to cut pension contributions and so put their retirement at risk.
As part of the wider AGM demonstration, a Unite organiser directly challenged the bank’s board at a Q&A session during the AGM. It sent a clear signal to Lloyds that Unite was determined to confront the fundamental unfairness of banks’ pay structures.
The AGM demo was only one of many actions that catapulted the pay campaign to its first success. The campaign launched a petition that garnered thousands of signatures, while pay stalls and other engagements at Lloyds workplaces up and down the country added to the campaign’s overall visibility.
After sustained action, Lloyds Banking Group conceded in June Unite’s point – that many low paid employees are struggling with the rising costs of food, fuel and heating, and that something had to be done. And so the bank confirmed they would be paying staff across the bank a £1,000 bonus to help tackle the cost of living crisis.
Dean told uniteEXTRA that such a move from the bank was “unprecedented”. “I don’t think it would have been possible were it not for the sustained collectivism shown throughout this campaign from our members,” he said.
Dean also attributes the success of the campaign to what he called “the new, bold trade unionism” being championed under the leadership of Unite general secretary Sharon Graham, who was elected last year.
“That support that’s coming centrally through the combines – this idea of really working together and learning from each other about other banks and financial institutions – is making all the difference,” he noted. “We the workers are the ones who are the wealth creators, putting these banks in a healthy financial position, and we are now making no apologies for the fact that we want – and deserve – better.”
Dean said their most recent success is only the beginning in the campaign. Right now, for example, they are fighting to ensure, through a collective grievance, that the bonus is extended to all colleagues in full. This, Dean says, must include part-time workers, whose bonus at the moment is only being pro-rated, and agency workers who were totally excluded.
“We’re stressing how unfair this is when at the end of the day, all our colleagues do the same work, whether they are part-time or agency, and they should not be left out as a result. It doesn’t make any sense to pro-rate a cost of living bonus when bills, food and fuel costs aren’t pro-rated. These workers are facing the same financial struggles as the rest.”
Setting sights higher
Dean said members at Lloyds – and in the finance sector as a whole – are setting their sights high as more and more members join and become involved.
“We’ve had a rise in membership as a result of our campaign, and there’s a palpable sense that we can, and will, win,” he noted. “We’re looking ahead to pay for 2023 and will continue to educate our members about the bleak economic situation and why they deserve better pay that keeps up with cost of living pressures.
“Our members told us last year’s below inflation pay award wasn’t good enough,” he added. “And while we await the findings from our members’ pay 2023 survey, we will always fight for LBG to put more money from its profits towards the pay budget — and for the profits made to be redistributed more equitably among its hard working employees.”
The collaborative work being carried out by the Unite finance combine is bearing fruit in other finance sector workplaces as well. In the last month since the Lloyds win in June, Unite has secured a cost of living pay increase for members at HSBC, Barclays, Natwest, Co-operative Bank, Virgin Money, TSB and Standard Life ROI.
Dean emphasised that the latest wins in the sector are not isolated ones – and that there’s never been a more exciting and hopeful time to be a member of Unite.
“My message to members and those who are considering joining is above all – get involved,” he said. “Because when you get involved – when you sign the petition, when you sign the collective grievance, when you show visible signs of support and solidarity with us – then that collectivism is what will bring about the wins and fundamental change we’re seeking.”
FIND OUT MORE
You can find about more about the Unite in Lloyds Banking Group on their website here. If you’d like to donate to the Finance Campaign Fund, you can donate via cheque to: Melanie Young 128 Theobalds Road, Holborn, London. WC1X 8TN. Please include a note specifying this is for the Finance Campaign Fund.
By Hajera Blagg