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American Banker: New York credit union signs first contract with organized employees

This article originally appeared on June 9, 2023 in American Banker:

Organized employees of Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union in Rochester, New York, have signed their first union contract after more than 14 months of negotiations.

The agreement reached this month between members of the $37 million-asset Genesee Co-op's bargaining committee and unionized employees addresses concerns such as increased wages, a retirement plan with an employer match and agreed-upon procedures for resolving conflicts through arbitration.

The trend of unionization, while still a rarity in the financial services industry, is gaining momentum as low unemployment rates and general sentiments of underappreciation among younger generations of talent inspire campaigns for change at institutions like Wells Fargo and many others.

"Our profit margins may not match those of larger, for-profit banking institutions, as these aspects are intrinsically linked to profit generation, [but] instead, our strength lies in our dedication to service," said Robert Bright, loan officer at Genesee Co-op and member of the union's bargaining unit. "This focus, coupled with our need to adapt to the current business landscape, made it crucial for us and our unionized co-workers to advocate for a new contract and the improvements it contains." 

In late 2021, frontline staffers at the credit union sought to address concerns of overwork and stagnant wages by becoming members of the Communications Workers of America, a national organization that advocates on behalf of those working in the communications industry as well as health care, public service, education and more. The group became official members of CWA Local 1170 on Jan. 26, 2022.

As the initial discussions began in March of last year, credit union management decided to avoid the more traditional adversarial form of bargaining — where both parties each state their positions independent of one another — and instead adopt a lesser-used interest-based approach. This framework invites both sides to state their needs and collaborate on each item to find a solution that suits both sides equitably.

Experts with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which was created in 1947 to provide mediation and conflict resolution services, helped oversee the approach.

Dan Apfel, chief operations officer at Genesee Co-op and a member of the bargaining committee, explained how executives chose to share as much information as possible with union members as part of their emphasis on collaborating from the start to ensure that employees who voiced concerns were properly heard and addressed.

"We talked about the financials, we shared everything so that we could be on the same page as we tried to come up with solutions together. ... We wanted everybody to know that we really want the credit union to work for the employees, just like we want it to work for the members and our community," Apfel said.

According to recent data from the National Labor Relations Board, which is the federal agency that protects the rights of workers and oversees formal elections for unionization with a labor group, the 12 months that ended September 30, 2022, was a record period for the overall number of union representation petitions received at 2,510 filings. This was a 53% increase from the 1,638 petitions submitted during the previous 12 months and the highest since 2016.

Despite the influx of submissions, 2022 findings from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the overall percentage of hourly and salary workers in the U.S. who belong to a union stood at 10.1% — the lowest on record.

Union experts can set realistic expectations for organized employees and streamline the overall drafting process through proper education on the steps involved in composing an agreement, explained Jessica Chang, a counselor and attorney specializing in labor and employment for the law firm Howard & Howard in Chicago.

Factors such as the size of the institution, the number of employees involved in campaigns and the scope of issues can impact how fast negotiations proceed while also creating added tension between the employer and organized workforces.

Unionized employees of TruStage, the Madison, Wisconsin-based insurance provider formerly known as CUNA Mutual Group, recently went on strike for more than two weeks. The strike began on May 19 as workers felt company leaders were stalling contract discussions, and the organizers put the strike on hold after TruStage granted some of their requests.

Other examples include members of the $12 billion-asset Lake Michigan Credit Union's Workers Alliance, who successfully joined the CWA in January of this year but have yet to reach an inaugural agreement with the institution's executives.

Workers' interactions with their employers can remain tense even after finding common ground, said Todd Dickey, an assistant professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University's Maxwell School who helped shape the negotiation process at Genesee Co-op.

"These scars can set relationships back just when they need to be moving forward with a new collective bargaining agreement," Dickey said. "Moving forward, I think it's a really exciting opportunity to learn and understand what the credit union's experience can teach us about best practices for contract negotiations."

The union's contract with Genesee Co-op will remain in effect for the next three years before being renewed or revised.

"It's important to take the time to get it right to make sure both sides understand what they're agreeing to and help limit disputes in the future," said John Pusloskie, president of CWA Local 1170. "The key thing is to set the foundation for a working partnership with management."