This post first appeared at TalkPoverty.
My name is Thiago Marques, and I work at a bank in New Jersey. Most people would consider this a middle class job — after all I wear a tie to work every day — but that’s far from reality.
I make around $9.50 an hour, live at home, and need financial aid to go to school.
The New York Times and others have written extensively on how the middle class is shrinking in America, how even with our economy in recovery more and more find themselves at the bottom. Many people who hear this envision fast food workers with multiple jobs struggling to make ends meet — not bank workers facing decreased salaries, demotions and diminished job security or opportunity for promotion. But that is the reality we face every day in the finance industry — one of the most powerful industries in the world and a driving force of the American economy.
I am still lucky in a lot of ways: I am able to live with my parents, because although I help with rent there’s no way I could afford an apartment on my own; I can attend university, because I receive financial aid and there’s no way I could afford to get a degree on my own. I am lucky to be able to cover my basic necessities, but I could never afford to have a family on this salary, and it shouldn’t take luck just to get by.
Last month, I learned it doesn’t have to be this way when I met João Almeida, a bank teller from Brazil. João lives in Brasilia where he works for a Santander Bank branch and does the same job as me. We both work six to eight hours a day, opening the vault, counting the register, making deposits, and dealing with customers. Except João enjoys a middle class life, has 30 paid vacation days per year, a health plan for his family and a pension fund.
Why the difference? Unlike me, João has a union to represent him, protect his rights, collectively bargain, and advocate on his behalf. Thanks to these protections, the average bank worker makes around $19.32 (including monetary benefits such as food assistance and cultural passes, both of which are part of the union contract.)
When João developed a repetitive motion problem in his arm, his union made sure he could stay home with paid leave and medical costs covered. When a manager at my branch had to take leave for spinal surgery, she received a demotion to customer service upon her return. When Santander tried to impose sales goals on tellers, the union fought back and kept them from being implemented. But In the US, nearly every bank has unreasonable sales goals, leading to unnecessary pressure and predatory lending and sales practices. In Brazil, João’s union made sure they had ergonomic chairs and any shift over six hours is paid overtime. While in the US, many tellers struggle to remain on their feet for more than eight hours straight.
The finance industry in America makes over $100 billion a year in profits. I don’t begrudge CEOs a high salary, but when they are making enough in bonuses to buy a small island while front-line workers like me struggle just to get by, something isn’t right.
It’s time to end a culture that sees workers as disposable drones who don’t need full-time or stable employment. It’s time to end subsistence wages and offer a fair share of the profits our work helps to create.
We need to rebuild the American middle class, starting with the wealthiest and most powerful industry in our economy.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.