Unite activists were on the streets of the city on Wednesday campaigning against the Royal Bank of Scotland’s controversial plans to close around 260 high street branches nationwide. The move, which has been termed “an act of corporate vandalism” by campaigners, brought members of the trade union together from all over the North to hold a demonstration outside the bank’s Spinningfields offices in Manchester.

Bailed out by the taxpayer, to the tune of £45 billion in 2008, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) this week pushed ahead with plans to axe a total of 259 branches, and 925 jobs, across the country. This precedes the planned sale of the 71% of shares in the bank still owned by the public. If the closures go ahead, the North West is set to become the worst affected region with 64 branches, being lost along with 430 jobs. These losses follow a trend of lost branches occuring since the 2008 financial crash; in 2017 alone 423 bank and building society branches were axed or given notice of closure.

The campaigners fear that these closures will have an impact far beyond those directly affected by losing their jobs. High street banks offer local residents and businesses a valuable lifeline, providing a much more comprehensive service than can be offered online. Helen Camp, who organised the demonstration for Unite, slammed the plans and said instead of closures and redundancies, RBS should be:

“Offering an essential public service, not committing an act of corporate vandalism. This does not represent value for money in any way, shape or form”.

Camp was also scathing about company bosses responsible for a disastrous re-branding exercise to another high street bank Williams & Glyn, the plans for which were eventually shelved. “This is a consequence of the failed experiment of setting up a new challenger bank, which wasted £1.8 billion of taxpayers money.”

Read our previous article: McStrike is the tip of the iceberg: unionisation is needed across the hospitality industry

Afzal Khan, MP for Gorton, was at the demo and expressed anger at the threat of these closures after, “billions of pounds have been poured in to save these banks and in return they are letting us down”. This came after the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, called on the government to intervene and halt these closures:

“Taxpayers stepped in to save RBS after bankers drove our economy off a cliff. Now it’s time for the government to step up and defend the public interest by stopping RBS’s reckless plans to close hundreds of local bank branches”

All this comes after the bank announced nearly £800 million profit last year, up three times on the year before. In a statement made at the bank’s AGM in Scotland yesterday, RBS Chief Executive Ross McEwan argued the closures were a reaction to shifts in customer behaviour with many of its service users preferring online or mobile banking, “Customers are changing the way they behave. A bank like us needs to respond to that.” His words will not do much for the concerns of local people and many of the older generation who remain largely reliant on their high street bank. Nor does it help small business owners, or people trying to get a mortgage or a loan.

The Royal Bank of Scotland was contacted to comment on the branch closures and demonstration in Manchester today, but did not reply.

The Meteor spoke to one concerned RBS employee who has already been issued with a redundancy notice and has until November to find alternative employment. The unwelcome news comes quick on the heels of her husband losing his construction job earlier this year in the fall out of the Carillion scandal – which has called into question the governments reliance on giant outsourcing firms and PFI deals, which can cost 40% more than using public money and have left the taxpayer with a £200 billion bill.

As the majority shareholder the government still has the chance to veto these closures. The Tories have faced calls from McDonell to fight the closures rather than “dancing to the tune of the banks board”. Theresa May talks of standing up for working people and the ‘just about managing’, but it is actions that ultimately count. It remains to be seen whether the government will step in to defend jobs, high streets and communities.

As the dispute continues, Sheila Coleman, Unite organiser and longstanding Hillsborough campaigner, called on trade unionists and the public to join the campaign:

“We’re here because we care about communities. We call on all Unite members and others. Next time we have a demonstration, join us and show support. Don’t let corporate greed kill our communities.”

Rory Mitchell

You can follow the campaign on Facebook at @uniterbs64

Feature Image: @uniterbs64

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