The Next Wave of Underpaid Worker Protests

This week, low-paid fast-food and retail workers took to the streets again, striking in more than 100 U.S. cities in an effort to procure higher wages, as well as the right to unionize. Their efforts to raise the federal minimum wage have yet to see results, but several states and local governments have responded, with five states adding a minimum-wage clause to their constitutions and 11 instituting automatic cost-of-living increases to their own minimum-wage laws.

As the lowest-compensated among us continue to bring attention to their plight, the publication of two new studies concerning salaries in the banking industry will surely ignite a smoldering pile of resentments among tellers and other low-paid bank employees -- likely making banking the next industry to be hit by worker protests.

Full-time bank workers need public assistance to get by
In a stark look at the wages of Wall Street bank employees, two recent studies showcase the gap between the pay bank tellers receive and the compensation necessary to make ends meet. The New Day New York Coalition found that nearly 40% of New York City bank tellers take advantage of one or more public assistance programs in order to sustain themselves and their families.

That is bad enough, but the report also notes that, at the same time as New York taxpayers are helping support bank employees, they are also forking over roughly $300 million annually in big-bank subsidies.

The Committee For Better Banks took an even wider view, reporting that nearly one-third of Wall Street bank tellers across the countryrely on public assistance to keep their heads above water. Not surprisingly, nearly 70% of the 5,000 workers interviewed for the study were women.

According to The Washington Post, the median bank executive salary is right around $552,000, while bank tellers are lucky to take home a little more than $24,000 per year. In addition, the Committee for Better Banks study notes that these front-line employees are reaping an even smaller share of the banking revenue pie, with banks sharing a paltry 30%-40% of revenue with workers since the financial downturn, compared to 50% before the crisis.

Smart ATMs, outsourcing to India
Big banks have made changes over the past year that have caused low-level employees to worry about the very existence of their jobs, as well. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , for example, sent much of its mortgage-review work to India earlier this year, abolishing the jobs of its appraisal-unit employees.

In New York, interactive ATMs the bank has been installing in branch locations have provoked workers' concerns. Last month, a small group of tellers picketed an ATM installation in Manhattan, claiming that the machines are a threat to tellers' jobs. Bank of America responded that this is not the case, but workers are not convinced. A petition, supported by the Committee For Better Banks, has been submitted requesting that BofA discontinue the use of the ATMs.

Labor unrest will likely hit the big banks next
Though Bank of America is taking the brunt of bank employees' discontent at the moment, I have no doubt that the next wave of protests over low pay will be aimed at all megabanks. The actions of the food and retail workers have highlighted the wage disparity that has intensified since the financial crisis, bringing the issue to the forefront and sparking discussions that may not have occurred otherwise.

The strikes and protests that have taken place over the past year are provoking change, at least at the state and local levels. With these two reports in hand, it's only a matter of time until low-wage bank employees join in.

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