Thursday, July 31, 2014

Article in Financial History Magazine!

I'm pleased to report that I had an article published on the coming to America of credit unions in the Spring, 2014 issue of Financial History magazine! They've expressed interest in a follow-up piece on the controversy surrounding the creation of National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF) during the Nixon years, so I'd welcome any source suggestions on that topic!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dora Maxwell Banker Joke from January, 1940

Did you ever hear the one about the ex-banker who opened up a gas station after his bank failed? Every time a fellow drove in and asked for ten gallons of gas the banker asked, "Won't five do?" The gas station failed too. It reminds me of some people I know on credit Committees.
--Dora Maxwell, The Bridge. January, 1940.
 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book Review - Soul: A Fourth Credit Union Book by Roy F. Bergengren

Photo from the cover page of Soul
Written in 1938 very much in response to the death of his confidant and early financial supporter Edward Filene, Soul: A Fourth Credit Union Book represents a departure from the practical nuts-and-bolts approach and subject matter of Roy Bergengren's earlier writings. Where his previous books tended to function as mixtures of how-to guides and reports as to the legislative progress of the organized movement, the agenda of Soul is self-consciously philosophical. Comprised primarily of a series of speeches interspersed with excerpts from the Credit Union Bridge and a few poems, Bergengren lays out the volume's agenda in his explanation of its name:
Hunting 'round for a name for this collection of prepared speeches I have decided to call it "Soul". My old dictionary says that, "the soul is the essence, heart or animating force of anything--the spirit, meaning, or significance of things." The animating force which motivates the credit union is the one thing I am hunting for in these pages. And there is another meaning of the word "Soul," long since lost through disuse. In provincial English the word was used to mean, "a relish, eaten with bread." Possibly this book may indeed be a sort of relish, taken with the bread, the very staff of the cooperative movement, to-wit, the operating principles on which the plan of cooperative association is based. (Pg. 8-9)
In his quest to lay bare the soul of credit unionism, Bergengren covers a variety of topics. The collection begins with the memorial speech to Edward Filene that he delivered to dozens of meetings around the United States over the course of 1937, and an he then proceeds to a discussion of the "immortality" of the underlying mission of credit unionism, which he summarizes as "to prove on Earth that the brotherhood of man is something more than a fine principle; we prove its practicality and we make it work." (pg. 35) Bergengren then goes on to provide an overview of the historical background of the movement, its place in the larger international context, and the important role of that he believes young people have to play in its long-term success.

While all of these essays are important and interesting, one that most clearly and explicitly fulfills Bergengren's stated mission of locating the "soul" of credit unionism is titled "Fundamentals." In it, he breaks down and discusses what he understands to be the key values at the core of the credit union idea. He begins with a discussion of the motivation of credit unionists, which he argues must come from a desire to serve, rather than accumulative, materialistic motivations. As he puts it:
The purpose of the organization is simply the maximum service to the membership; we exist solely for service; let that burn itself into your very soul; not for profit, not for charity--but for service! If the system of capitalism has failed--and certainly right now it is under critical scrutiny--it is solely because of wrong motivation. We have been trying to build an economic society on the basis of the survival of the smartest, the shrewdest, the cleverest, the most unscrupulous of our number; that the highest objective of the right life is the accumulation of things, regardless of the effect of such accumulation on society as a whole. This is the established principle of the jungle; it has no place in civilized society. The results of any system must be the justification of that system. I make no attack on capitalism; I am not interested in it. But the perpetuation of capitalism depends entirely on a prompt reformation of motive. (pg. 62)
Once correct intention is established, Bergengren goes on to identify and discuss four fundamentals of the credit union project. First, he affirms the cooperative character of the movement, and highlights the importance of not just being cooperative in name, but also "cooperative in fact." (pg. 63).

Second, he notes the diversity of communities that have found use in the credit union model, and argues that the movement must remain ecumenical. To foster and maintain such broad-based participation, credit unionism must retain its autonomy and neutrality; it "must never become the tail to any particular kite. There are enough differences in the world, enough conflicting principles which drive men apart. Let us build one great credit union solidarity on this principle of cooperative credit on which we are agreed[.]" (pg. 64)

Third, he argues for the importance of maintaining "simplicity of operation and control" of credit unions. While Bergengren sees the credit union project as having disproved early naysayers who believed that "the fundamental weakness of the credit union was its assertion of the power and right of working people to manage their money," (pg. 60) he also perceives a risk inherent in the movement's success. He argues that "as we increase and multiply and grow in strength and in power ... there will be those who cannot refrain from attempting our exploitation. We shall be told that we must employ experts for this and that; that we must delegate to those who might exploit us the opportunity for such exploitation." (pg. 64-5)  To counter this dynamic of what present-day economists refer to as "management capture," he recommends that credit unionists "not become prone to call in professionals who, not knowing how to think credit-union-wise, will drag into our councils all of the bad thinking on which so many professional thinkers are trained." (pg. 65) While some professionalization might be unavoidable, Bergengren concludes that "the right credit union is the credit union wherein the average member has understanding of his credit union in all phases of its potentialities of service." (pg. 66)

Finally, he argues that a commitment to education is essential if the movement's fundamentals are to be successfully transmitted to successive generations of credit unionists. Bergengren argues that the league chapters will be key institutions for advancing the educational agenda, and he holds up as worthy of emulation examples of work being done by the Antigonish Movement, which boasted an extremely extensive cooperative educational program in Nova Scotia.

In most of Roy Bergengren's "A Credit Union Book" series, the question of values tends to take a back seat to the concerns of the moment and the conveyance of the practices and techniques necessary for the hands-on work of building the credit union movement. In Soul, however, Bergengren takes a step back and addresses the 'why' of the credit union movement head on; what was it that motivated literally million of people of modest means to devote their volunteer time and energy to the collective task of constructing a system of cooperative finance. His explanation of the "soul" of credit unionism both serves to deepen the reader's understanding of the subjective side of the movement's origins, and offers an opportunity for reflection on the ways in which contemporary credit unions have both lived up to, and fallen short of, the aspirations of the people who laid the foundations of the modern credit union system. Covering all this ground in under 100 pages, Soul is a must-read for anyone who cares about credit unions.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Roy Bergengren on the Dangers of Credit Union Professionalism

Excerpted from Roy F. Bergengren's 1938 Soul: A Fourth Credit Union Book (pg. 65-66). Original emphasis in italics, my emphasis in bold:

"[I]t seems to me, among the fundamentals [of the credit union movement] is the basic simplicity of what we are trying to do. We learn in credit unions how to manage our own business; we are brave enough not to accept bad practices just because of their antiquity. Much precedent is nothing but uncorrected bad habit. We pioneer when we have to. We try--and successfully to--to build men and women in their self respect, in their capacity to reach out and up and to accomplish what they have hitherto never dreamed to be within the realm of their latent capacities. We belong with the masses of the people, not working on a level which is beyond their reach but working with each other and helping each other up to new levels which we thought to be unattainable. As we increase and multiply and grow in strength and in power; as our accumulation becomes increasingly great and our army swells to many millions--there will be those who cannot refrain from attempting our exploitation. We shall be told that we must employ experts for this and that; that we must delegate to those who might exploit us the opportunity for such exploitation. Some of our leaders will not know how to grow with the growth of their respective responsibilities. They will forget their humble origins and, forgetting how they emerged from the ranks, they may easily fall into the pitfalls of those who, not knowing how to use power, abuse it. We must not get lost to accountants, and lawyers and bankers; we must not become prone to call in professionals who, not knowing how to think credit-union-wise, will drag into our councils all of the bad thinking on which so many professional thinkers are trained. There must not be too many rules for in the complicity incidental to too many rules comes confusion as to the fundamentals. The credit union is the true democracy; it is the real hope of working people because it comes from and belongs to working people.

...

I know some splendid credit union treasurers whose credit unions are well managed, one man shows. The directors are rubber stamps; the credit committee sits idly by and leaves the matter of determining credit to the treasurer. Everyone leans on him and no one knows anything about the credit union except as he interprets the credit union, and, too often in the process of his interpretation proves conclusively that he doesn't know what a credit union is. The right credit union is the credit union wherein the average member has an understanding of his credit union in all phases of its potentialities of service.

If we are understanding we will not make mistakes like one I heard recently debated in a credit union league meeting; it was proposed that the law be amended to relieve the credit committee of all its obligations on unsecured loans and to give the treasurer arbitrary power to determine all loans up to one hundred dollars. The meeting hooted down the suggestion and we must be aware of suggestions for changes in our basic law which violates principles which are a part of the fundamental character of which I have been speaking."

Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review - "Minding Our Own Business: Community, Consumers, and Cooperation" by Jennifer E. Tammi

While doing some research on the roots of the contemporary banker campaign against the credit union tax exemption, I stumbled upon reference to an organization called the "National Tax Equity Association" (NTEA) in an old copy of the Credit Union Bridge from the 1950's. Curious for more information, I Googled the NTEA; the results were pretty slim pickings, with one exception: a link to a 50+ MB PDF file of a fascinating and engaging 2012 Columbia University PhD dissertation on the rise and decline of the organized consumer cooperative movement movement in the first half of the 20th century.

In Minding Our Own Business: Community, Consumers, and Cooperation, Dr. Jennifer E. Tammi starts off by examining the roots of the American co-op movement in the experiences of the labor and farmers' movements in the late 19th century, as well as in self-help efforts among marginalized populations such as African Americans and immigrants. She then goes on to discuss the establishment of the Cooperative League of the USA (CLUSA) in 1916 as a umbrella organization to advance the agenda of "Cooperative Democracy," which, according to founder Dr. James P. Warbasse, "is to be reached not by voting, not by sabotage, not by the general strike, nor through revolution or the class struggle, but by putting into operation co-operative democracy – first on a small scale, and then ever increasing and expanding." (pg. 90)

Tammi then proceeds to chronicle the fight between Warbasse's faction and the Communist Party (CPUSA) over the principle of political neutrality in the 1920's, as well as the rapid growth of the organization as the Great Depression drove people looking for alternatives to the existing economic order to form co-ops in unprecedented numbers. She then examines the rise to hegemony of a centralizing, bureaucratic, and increasingly conservative agenda among the leadership of the CLUSA that, she argues convincingly, eroded the local, particular social foundations of the constituent co-ops upon which the long-term viability of the cooperative movement rested. As a result, by the early 1960's the consumer co-op movement was in steep decline, and the CLUSA (which changed its name to the National Cooperative Business Association in the 1980's) was a shadow of its former self.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Labor Unions in the African American Credit Union Experience: Oral History Tour Take-away #1

After a month on the road interviewing African American credit union elders (and doing some archival research on the side), I finally returned home to Vermont last Friday with my head full of ideas, observations and insights gleaned from the journey. While I have a feeling I'll be continuing to process the full implications of what I've just experienced for some time to come, I figured I'd write a few posts in the coming days on some of my take-aways. First up: Labor Unions in the credit union movement.

When thinking about credit unions for which the place of employment is the common bond, prior to the trip I'd mostly bought into the assumption that they essentially fulfilled a human resources function for employers. While the credit union I wrote my Masters thesis about was founded by a labor union, I'd assumed it was an anomaly, and that most employer common-bond CUs were rooted in a certain level of employer paternalism.

However, as my trip progressed, it became increasingly clear that the significance of the role played by labor unions in at least African American credit union history, and possibly the history of credit unions more generally, has been distinctly under-recognized. Upon reflection, I believe that this is partly the fault of the fact that the most easily accessible documentary sources from the early movement, such as many of Roy Bergengren's books, were often promotional materials aimed at convincing employers to offer credit unions free space in their facilities, and thus played up the human resources angle.

However, a theme that emerged in many of the interviews I conducted over the course of my trip was the important role played by labor unions in both the establishment and governance of many of the credit unions I encountered. To start with, my very first interviewee, Milton Carr, was not only the former president of the Arabi Sugar Workers FCU, but had also been a union officer prior to his retirement. One has to be a member of the union at the plant to join the credit union, and he was quite explicit about the ways in which the credit union benefits the bargaining position of the union by contributing to the financial stability of the members, as he lays out in the following clip concerning his credit union's "strike fund" savings program:


Monday, March 10, 2014

Oral History Tour Stop 3: Helen Godfrey-Smith and Martha Morris of Shreveport FCU

March 4th, 2014

In the preparation for the trip, one person I’d been in extensive contact with was the CEO of Shreveport FCU, Helen Godfrey Smith. One of the founding members of the African American Credit Union Coalition, Ms. Smith took an interest in African American credit union history several years ago, and was the driving force behind the exhibit at America’s Credit Union Museum. Given that the community of people in the U.S. who are doing work on the history of the credit union movement can be counted on one hand, I was excited to have the opportunity to meet Ms. Smith in person, and rolled out from Jackson towards Shreveport for a late afternoon meeting.

When I arrived, the location stood in stark contrast to that of my last interview; instead of half a shipping container, the Shreveport FCU headquarters occupies a substantial two-story building in a commercial part of town. After checking in at the front desk, I was ushered up stairs and to Ms. Smith’s office, where she and VP Martha Morris awaited me. After briefly discussing my project and previous interviews, I set up my camera and began my interview with Ms. Smith, which covered a great deal of ground, including, among other topics, her background, maintaining a sense of community in the face of growth and consolidation, segregation in the early movement, the African American Credit Union Coalition, and the challenges of the regulatory structure.


Once we concluded, Ms. Smith encouraged Ms. Morris to fill me in a bit about the process by which her credit union had merged with Shreveport, and I did a short interview with her, during which we also discussed how she first got involved with credit unions when she ran one as a volunteer while working at a unionized plywood plant, and her sense of the challenges facing the contemporary movement.