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Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union workers form union 

click to enlarge The Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union on Gregory Street.

PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI

The Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union on Gregory Street.

Workers at the Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union have formed a union, a rare move for the staff of a financial institution.

The Genesee Co-op, which is located on Gregory St., is a member-owned credit union that has 12 employees and manages $35 million in assets. The vote to form a union was unanimous, and 10 of the bank’s employees are now represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA).

“Credit unions really are owned, run by, and supported by their members and their communities, and employees are part of that community too,” said Nolan Noble, a loan officer who has worked at the credit union for four years “It’s insane how much their voice is taken away from them. Employees have the right to be at the table, to have a voice and advocate for themselves.”

Noble said the move to unionize was a long-time coming due to a lack of raises, long hours, and mediocre wages. But the tipping point was the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans the bank processed and originated. The federal government loans, which were administered through banks and credit unions, at 1 percent interest, and forgave loans where at least 60 percent went to payroll.

Genesee Co-op processed about $500,000 in loans that went to businesses across the state, most of them small businesses.

“We were working relentlessly for two months, and there were two waves of PPP loans, we’re talking non-stop work, work, work,” Noble said. “It was really hard, and it was really rewarding, because we knew if we didn’t do it, businesses weren’t going to make it.”

“...And then at the end of it, management just kind of looked at us and said, ‘Hey, you guys did that.’”

Noble, and the staff at Genesee Co-op, thought they deserved more than a “job well done.” One of the staff members knew someone who worked with CWA, so the employees reached out.The workers subsequently approached their managers and informed them of their intent to unionize.

The Communications Workers of America has been pushing for greater unionization of financial institutions, citing the need for better working conditions for employees and changes in the cultures of financial firms and institutions. It’s been particularly focused on workers’ fear of retaliation for speaking out against unethical lending practices, such as those that fueled the 2008 financial crisis.

Genesee Co-op Chief Operating Officer Dan Apfel said the bank’s staff first approached management in September to announce their intent to unionize.

“When we were approached, from the get-go, we said we’re an institution that values our community and values economic justice, and if our staff wants to have a union, we support workers’ rights,” Apfel said. “And we wanted to work with them in the best way that we can to support them in doing that.”

Genesee Co-op has a history of supporting progressive financial policies. In 2020, the bank backed the Excelsior Banking Network, a proposal by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo that would have used $25 million in state funds to set up a public bank to increase access to basic banking services.

The bank also employs staff fluent in Somali, Swahili, and Nepali in order to better serve Rochester’s refugee population.

Supporting unionization was, in a way, management’s opportunity to live up to its own values, Apfel said. The credit union made a commitment to remain neutral in the staff’s organizing process, he added.

The unionization effort may already be seeing fruit. Bank employees have already received a $2,000 bonus and they are now enmeshed in the collective bargaining process. High on their list of demands are better retirement plans and raises for employees.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.
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