ECONOMY

Bank unions tune in to new realities

The adamant refusal by commercial banks to negotiate a single pay pact with the Federation of Bank Employees’ Unions (OTOE) amounts to a spectacular change in labor relations in the most dynamic and best-performing sector of the Greek economy. This, of course, in no way means the end of unions or the abolition of labor rights or pay cuts, as OTOE claims. For those closely following developments in the sector, the change in banks’ stance has not come out of the blue. Following OTOE’s almost blind intransigence over the sector’s social insurance issue last summer, which cost bank workers a good many days’ pay, and the recent trouble over the Saturday opening of Eurobank’s branches at two big shopping malls, which turned the bank’s union against OTOE, it became clear that relations between the two sides had undergone a deep rift. It is sad that OTOE did not see in time the rapid changes taking place in the banking sector in recent years. Instead, its leaders, stuck in the mentality of the 1980s, fought battles for petty benefits rather than tapping for its members the new opportunities arising from banks’ increased profitability and the international expansion of their networks. This change in labor relations from sectoral to individual bank pay pacts presents a new opportunity for bank workers to gain new rights and improved pay and conditions. Already, Eurobank’s union, taking advantage of the Saturday openings, has succeeded in gaining pay raises, a reduction in weekly work hours to 35 and the hiring of new staff for new branches. Moreover, the union has agreed with management that in good periods, such as the present, when profitability is high, staff will be given 30-40 shares in the bank free and bonuses according to sales, while senior staff are given stock options. At the National Bank (NBG), as Kathimerini reported on Wednesday, the union has struck a new contract with management for many benefits that effectively amount to high pay raises. These dynamic developments prove that in a fast-growing economy unions can adopt new, flexible and innovative tactics for securing their rights in the framework of the new realities. One does not need wisdom to see what this new reality is. Some years ago, when then state-controlled NBG, Emporiki Bank and the Bank of Greece accounted for 80 percent of the country’s banking system, a sectoral pay pact was meaningful. Today, however, NBG and Emporiki represent less than 30 percent of the sector, and the state has no stake in the former and plans to privatize the latter. Moreover, Greek banks’ spectacular expansion into the Balkans and the fast growth of retail banking services has promoted the individual character of each. Today there are 28 private Greek banks, 14 foreign and 16 that are cooperatives, each with its own business plan and designs to expand abroad or make new acquisitions toward economies of scale. Under the business plans, earning the allegiance of staff, senior staff and bonus policies, salary levels and incentives are crucial strategic factors for growth. Why, therefore, should banks concede to OTOE this strategic advantage of theirs? And, conversely, how could their employees negotiate better pay with employers through proxies rather than by themselves? In all, the changes in labor relations are an inescapable result of the dynamics in the banking sector and a huge opportunity for grassroots unions.