Seattle Shouldn’t Be in the Wells Fargo Business


Jonathan Tasini at CNN does the impossible: he succinctly sums up the recent controversy over Wells Fargo’s specious business practices in a single sentence:

Wells Fargo engineered a widespread scam on its customers, opening up as many as 1.5 million bank accounts and hundreds of thousands of credit card accounts that their customers never authorized, partly to inflate the perceived value of the company.

Of course, once you stare at the scam a little more closely, you pick up all sorts of terrible little details. Just today we’ve learned that Wells Fargo has repossessed hundreds of cars owned by US service members, for instance. I bet we haven’t learned the last of the bank’s various acts of malfeasance.

In response to this news, Wells Fargo fired over five thousand ground-level employees. But the bank’s executives are still cashing in: the company’s head of community banking, Carrie Tolstedt, might be walking away from Wells Fargo with 77 million dollars.  And as a thank you for overseeing all this, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf—yes, his real name—could receive a $134.1 million payout.

This is, frankly, disgusting. It’s parasitic behavior. Normal Americans have suffered thanks to the bank’s callous exploitation of trust, and middle-class employees of the bank are the only ones who have been penalized to date. If every bank in America followed Wells Fargo’s nihilistic business model, the economy would collapse. Barring a few trolls and high-paid banking executives, nobody in America thinks Wells Fargo should get away with this kind of scheme.

So why, then, are we rewarding Wells Fargo’s behavior? Why would you keep an account at Wells Fargo, knowing that not only does the company screw over its workers in pursuit of a ballooning profit for a few high-level executives, but that they actively scammed their customers? I understand that inertia is a hell of a drug, and that it’s easier to believe your account is safe from these practices now that Wells Fargo has been publicly shamed than it is to go through the whole process of closing your account and taking your business to a reputable credit union, but the lack of real consequences for Wells Fargo executives indicates that this kind of behavior was not sufficiently discouraged.

Which brings me to my point: did you know that Wells Fargo serves as the City of Seattle’s depository bank? This means that the city’s money—your tax dollars—flows through Wells Fargo. They profit from this relationship. Which also means that Seattle is effectively endorsing Wells Fargo’s behavior by keeping a contract with the bank. I could perhaps understand a trickle-down government like Sam Brownback’s state of Kansas banking with Wells Fargo, but the bank has demonstrated time and again that it is entirely at odds with Seattle’s stated values.

Over the last few years, Seattle has dedicated itself to the belief that we all do better when we all do better. Through laws like the $15 minimum wage and secure scheduling, we have affirmed that we need everyone’s participation to build a robust economy. We have no time in this city for employers who exploit their employees for a quick payout, because we want our economy to be a race to the top, not a race to the bottom. Why, then, would we encourage a bank that knowingly cheats its customers out of money? A bank that has demonstrated time and again that artificially inflated bottom lines are its most important goal? A bank that didn’t pay its employees for time worked? Seattle stands against everything that Wells Fargo has become. So we need to stop rewarding them with Seattle’s money.

David Rolf, president of the local SEIU chapter, and Civic Ventures founder  (and my boss) Nick Hanauer have joined forces to launch a petition demanding that the city of Seattle pull its money from Wells Fargo. I’ve signed it. I suggest you sign it. And I suggest you share it with your friends and family. I know that petitions often seem ineffectual—some wags online tend to mock petition-signers as “armchair activists”—but I’ve talked to a lot of politicians and I can tell you that petitions matter—especially on a city level. A petition signed by many constituents carries real power with elected officials. It’s one of the simplest, most effective ways to make your voice heard.

Of course, signing a petition isn’t the only thing we need to do. Simply entering your information into a form is no replacement for talking to elected officials, keeping up on the news story as it develops, and letting your social circle know why this issue is important. But it is absolutely an important first step. As Seattleites, we already know that our politicians are committed to making the economy more inclusive. They’ve demonstrated this in the way they legislate. But a politician’s attention and resources are finite, and so we have to guide them to the issues that matter to us. This is one of those times. And the best part is that it won’t take much effort on their part; breaking ties with Wells Fargo won’t require months of crafting legislation or many hours of public appearances to debate this issue. They likely already agree with us—we just have to, as the old FDR anecdote goes, make them do it.

This the right thing to do, and it’s a great message for our city to send to the rest of the country. Seattle is open for business, but we won’t reward practices that hurt everyday Americans in order to benefit the wealthy few. Sign the petition to let the world know that our values are the bedrock on which the city is built, and there is no room for compromise.

Paul Constant

Comments are closed.