Wells Fargo workers in Bethel seek to form a union that could be giant bank’s first

Five Wells Fargo employees in a Western Alaska hub community have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in an effort to create what they say could be the first-ever union at the bank.

Employees of the branch in Bethel filed the petition last week to hold union elections, said Walker Sexton, a personal banker at the branch who is leading the effort to unionize. A key driver for him and other employees is Bethel’s high cost of living relative to their benefits, he said.

The effort in the community of about 6,000 comes as unions see a resurgence nationally.

The bankers and tellers in Bethel join a Wells Fargo branch in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in also filing for union elections. The branches have declared their intent to be part of the newly formed Communications Workers of America’s Wells Fargo Workers United, the group said in a statement.

The unionizing efforts at Wells Fargo are the first of their kind at a major U.S. bank, according to the statement from Wells Fargo Workers United.

The banking industry is one of the least organized sectors of the economy, the group said.

Saul Van Beurden, chief executive of consumer, small and business banking at Wells Fargo, said in a statement that the bank is committed to investing in its employees.


“For the last four years, we made healthcare more affordable for lower paid employees by decreasing the portion they pay of total costs, increased median base salaries by 26% for those making less than $50,000, reduced the required workdays for those in many of our branches, and increased staffing levels in branches where needed to help support our employees and ultimately our customers,” he said. “We strongly believe everyone’s individual voice should be heard and that direct connection is the best way to continue to make progress in ensuring that our workplace helps our employees thrive.”

Sexton, 31, who graduated from high school in Whittier, said he’s not aware of any big increases in wages at Wells Fargo. Sexton said the bank doesn’t pay employees a livable wage or provide adequate benefits, so he initiated the unionization effort at the branch.

He said the Wells Fargo workers in Bethel either have a second job or receive public assistance to get by. Sexton said with a cost-of-living adjustment for Bethel, where rent can cost $2,000 per month or more, he makes $38 per hour. He said the price of everything is extra costly in the community, about 400 miles west of Anchorage.

A gallon of milk currently costs $12.49, a worker at the town’s biggest grocer said by phone on Monday. The average household income in Bethel is $100,000, according to state of Alaska figures.

“Wells Fargo earns profits worth billions of dollars every year, they can afford to pay us better,” he said. “I work two jobs because Bethel is super expensive to live in.”

Other issues that members of Wells Fargo Workers United say they hope to resolve by unionizing include chronic understaffing, unfair sales pressure and unreasonable workloads, the statement said.

Bethel employees expressed their concerns last week in a letter to Wells Fargo chief executive Charles Scharf.

Wells Fargo reported making $13.2 billion in profits last year. It’s the largest bank in Alaska with 37 branches, federal records show.

Wells Fargo has fought efforts to unionize, the statement from Wells Fargo Workers United asserted.

But the Wells Fargo branch employees can create a union with a majority of the five employees, who are in unanimous support of unionizing, Sexton said. Also uncertain is whether the employees can reach collective bargaining agreements with the bank if the unionizing effort is successful.

In a video on the Wells Fargo Workers United website, Sexton says the bank won’t provide fair treatment unless its workers come together and demand it.

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Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or