Tellers, teachers, Somali immigrants take on big banks during St. Paul rally

web.CWA-banks-sceneBeen targeted with a high-pressure sales pitch at your bank recently? You’re not alone, according to a report released earlier this month exposing a “new era of predatory lending” in the industry.

But Wells Fargo employee Michael Lewis offered this plea to frustrated customers yesterday: “The average bank workers, they want to work with you,” he said. “We don’t want to sell you products you don’t need.

“Don’t hate the average worker; hate the banks please.”

And that’s just what activists did during a demonstration downtown St. Paul, outside the Wells Fargo building. Minnesotans for a Fair Economy organized the rally with the Committee for Better Banks, a national organization, backed by the Communications Workers of America and other labor groups, that seeks to improve working conditions at big banks, which raked in more than $100 billion in profits last year.

Marquez asks the public to support bank workers looking to improve their wages and conditions.

Diego Marquez asks the public to support bank workers looking to improve their wages and conditions.

“Every time I see the profit report from these banks – from my bank – I get upset,” bank worker and Better Banks supporter Diego Marquez said. “Why do I have to wear a tie to work and a suit if I can barely make above minimum wage?”

But bank workers like Marquez and Lewis weren’t the only ones with grievances to air against the big banks.

St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Denise Rodriguez called on U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo, which do business with the St. Paul Public Schools, to commit to limiting foreclosures on families that have school-age children during the academic year.

Rodriguez and SPFT member Lily Tharoor, a social worker, described abruptly losing students from their classrooms or school buildings after their families received foreclosure or eviction notices.

“Academically, the kids don’t just stay where they are if they have all these disruptions; they actually fall back,” Tharoor said. “As a member of SPFT, I’m really very proud of the stand the union has taken on this subject. It’s very forward-thinking and really looking out for our students.”

Said Rodriguez: “This is a problem that adults created and that adults can fix.”

Meanwhile, representatives of Somali immigrant groups accused Wells Fargo and other big banks of refusing to work with community leaders on methods for sending financial support – via “remittances” – to family members in East Africa.

New federal regulations prompted U.S. banks to halt money transfers to Somalia in February. They cited concerns remittances might fund terrorism – concerns Sadik Warfa, a local Somali leader, called shortsighted and off the mark.

“I’m a proud American, and the thing is if you stop remittances, you are helping the terrorists because they will tell (people) that America hates us,” Sadik said.

Remittances from Somalis living abroad inject more than $1.2 billion into the country’s economy annually, more than foreign aid and investments combined.


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