Sunday, January 1, 2012

Book Review - People Helping People: A History of the Maine Credit Union Movement

"People Helping People," is a well-used credit union slogan, and also, it turns out, a common title for books about state movements. Edward M. Walters used the phrase for his 2009 history of credit unionism in Texas, but it's first appearance seems to be on John W. Zerillo and Ted Desveaux's 2004 book People Helping People: A History of the Maine Credit Union Movement.

Though commissioned and published by the Maine Credit Union League, Zerillo and Desveaux's work is especially interesting because, unlike many other trade-association supported histories (including the aforementioned work by Walters and Moody and Fite's CUNA-sponsored national history), it doesn't treat the development of its sponsoring organization as a proxy for the history of the movement as a whole. While the Maine Credit Union League is the focus of one quite readable and interesting chapter, the most fascinating parts of the book come when the authors tell stories of early credit unionism that highlight the culture of the early credit union movement.

To accomplish this, Zerillo and Desveaux supplement their archival research with extensive oral history interviews. In fact, one chapter, entitled "Maine Credit Union Pioneers and Volunteers," is entirely devoted to profiling key figures, many of them quite elderly but still living at the time of writing. Whether recounting the often strange logistics of running a credit union out of one's home (such as being woken up at 4:00 AM on Christmas morning to make a loan to a member who needed to visit a sick relative in Canada) or recalling the purpose of the very first loan made by Ste. Famille FCU (to buy a milk cow, of which the book contains a photo), such personal accounts powerfully convey the sense of purpose felt by early credit union volunteers. While modern credit unions still use the term "movement" (with some temporary lapses of "industry" from time to time), People Helping People's oral history component helps communicate what that term meant to previous generations of credit unionists.

Another interesting aspect of the book is the amount of space the authors devote to the histories of individual institutions. Since the Maine Legislature was very late in passing a state-wide credit union law, only three credit unions were founded (thanks to special acts of the Legislature) prior to the passage of the Federal Credit Union Act in 1934. As a result of their unorthodox way in which they were established, these credit unions had a variety of idiosyncrasies, such as a huge, twenty-four person board of directors and extra-restrictive membership requirements, that set them apart from the rest of the movement for decades.

In addition to their extensive discussion of the pioneering organizations, Zerillo and Desveaux also devote an entire chapter to a compilation of brief historical sketches of all of the state's credit unions. While some of the pieces were written by the book's authors and others were submitted by the credit unions themselves, reading them all back-to-back is a fascinating way to take in both the similarities and the diversities of the movement's constituent parts, whether one considers the ways in which they were established, how they developed, and their strategies for navigating a variety of challenges.

A final valuable element of People Helping People is the long memory it provides of banker attacks on the credit union movement. In many credit union histories, bank opposition to credit unions is brushed off with a vague mention of the issue of credit union taxation. By contrast, Zerillo and Desveaux come back to the topic repeatedly in a way that underscores the variety of tactics that bankers have used over the years in their campaigns to suppress competition from the cooperative model. Whether in the form of opposition to credit union enabling legislation in the 1920s and 1930s, attempts to put banks branches in factories with credit unions in the 1960s, or regulatory wrangling in the 1990s, the book's authors don't shy away from discussions of the movement's often tense relationship with the banks.

Overall, People Helping People is a quick, accessible read that delivers a solid overview of both the institutional and social history of the credit union movement in Maine. While the authors do neglect a few potentially interesting topics (such as the unique character of the French Canadian credit unions that Mark Richard touches on in Loyal But French), their book is nonetheless a vitally important contribution to the credit union history literature. Indeed, it's the best executed example of the "state movement history" genre I've encountered thus-far, and I heartily recommend that anyone considering undertaking such a project in their own state first read People Helping People for inspiration in regards to both method and structure.

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