By 1917, many bank workers were becoming frustrated. For the first few years of the war, they'd accepted longer hours and heavier workloads as their contribution to the war effort. But things just kept getting worse. Prices were rising so rapidly that even the war gratuities they received on top of their salaries couldn't keep pace with the increasing cost of living. The war dragged on with no end in sight, and some people began to think it might last forever, becoming the new normal way of life.
Although they had no wish to be disloyal to their nation, many bank clerks began to believe the only way they could protect their livelihoods was to organise themselves into a union. In October 1917 representatives from the staffs of all the Irish banks began discussions about forming a union. A provisional committee was formed in Dublin the following month, and others soon followed in Limerick, Cork, Belfast, Londonderry and Galway. The first general meeting of the Irish Bank Officials' Association was held in Dublin on St Patrick's Day 1918. Over 1,500 bank workers from all over Ireland, from junior to senior, had already joined.
The banks were keenly aware of the moves that were taking place. In December 1917 Stanley Ferguson, director of Ulster Bank, discussed the situation with Walter Leaf, deputy chairman of the bank's new owner, London County & Westminster Bank. Ferguson told Leaf that other Irish banks had recently granted salary increases and bonuses. He knew Ulster Bank's staff were preparing a formal declaration of their dissatisfaction, and predicted it would include a demand for pay rises of 30% across the board, and 10% bonuses for the remainder of the war. He also added that a union of Irish bank officials was being formed. All these factors contributed to Ferguson and Leaf quickly agreeing to pay a war bonus.
In October 1918 the Irish Bank Officials' Association received formal recognition from the Ministry of Labour and Reconstruction. A little over a year later, the Irish banks also signed a recognition agreement, undertaking to deal with the Association as a negotiating representative of its members.
Similar moves were underway in England, Wales and Scotland. In fact, efforts at unionisation had been made before. The National Association of Bank Clerks, for example, had been formed in 1914, but its high ambitions had been shelved with the outbreak of war. It was only the worsened conditions - and the greater bargaining power of workers - at the end of the war that made the time ripe for unionisation.
The Bank Officers' Guild was established in February 1918 as an association of English and Welsh bank workers. A parallel organisation, the Scottish Bankers Association, was formed in Scotland the following year. Both published their own journals, and campaigned not only to protect salaries and other benefits, but to improve bank clerks' education. They favoured the professionalisation of banking, so that - like accountants and solicitors - only those who held the appropriate formal qualification would be called 'banker'.
A number of banks disliked the idea of their employees having an allegiance to an external organisation which could influence their actions. In 1919 several banks established rival internal staff guilds, and granted them privileged status in negotiations on pay and other employment matters. Both of our largest constituent banks pursued this strategy.
Whether staff representation was organised by internal or external bodies, by the early 1920s nearly all British and Irish bank workers had access to some kind of union or staff association. The war had brought about a profound and permanent shift in the nature of relations between banks and their workers.