Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Occupy Your Credit Union! A Tactic for Activist Members

    While the financial crisis and economic malaise of the past few years has been truly devastating, one silver lining has been the development of increased awareness of the democratic cooperative model of financial services embodied by the credit union movement. Hundred of thousands of people responded to the call to "move your money" around Bank Transfer Day, and both the rate of growth and the stature of the credit union movement is higher than it has been in a very long time.

    All of this is very exciting! However, it only represents the first step in achieving a just financial system. Being a credit union member is not basically the same as being a bank customer who gets better rates and fewer fees; rather, at its core, credit union membership means that you own your bank. With that ownership comes not simply a claim to your fair share of the profits that Bank of America would otherwise have shipped off to its shareholders, but the right to have an equal say in determining the policies and priorities of your credit union.

    For a variety of reasons, however, the mechanisms available to members for making their voices heard are weak in many credit unions. While the board of directors consists of members elected on a one-member, one vote principle, elections often consist of the board members re-nominating themselves and running unopposed, and other opportunities for meaningful member input are rare. This state of affairs (one co-op studies scholar has referred to it as the "democratic deficit") is more the result of neglect than malfeasance, but, whatever the source, it ultimately weakens the capacity of credit unions to effectively advance the interests of their members.

    As such, addressing this "democratic deficit" in our credit unions is the logical follow-up to Bank Transfer Day. Phase 1 was moving our money, which served to shift a respectable amount of resources and power out of the hands of the corporate banking system and into our cooperative one. In order to wield that power to effectively advance our interests against the plutocracy, however, requires that we push for more participatory and responsive democratic processes in our credit unions. As long as the democratic deficit remains, credit unions will remain a passive counter-balance to the excesses of the Wall Street model; once we resolve it, however, I believe credit unions have the potential to become champions that can lend an enormous amount of weight to the struggle for a just financial order.

    Though there are many possible ways to increase the empowerment of credit union members, I propose that one effective strategy would be the formation of "Credit Union Members Associations." Open to all members of a particular credit union and run on the consensus model popularized by the Occupy movement, each Members Association will initially serve as a bi-monthly forum at which members can get to know each other and discuss their the credit union. Then, as the credit union's annual meeting approaches, members of the Association will nominate a slate of "Association Delegates" from their own ranks to challenge the incumbent members of the board of directors whose seats are up for election.

    To receive the endorsement of the Members Association, prospective candidates must meet a few requirements. As in credit union board elections, they must receive the support of the majority of Association members, and, if successfully elected to the credit union board, they must pledge to fulfill several key responsibilities. First, Association Delegates will be responsible for organizing a general meeting (run on the aforementioned consensus process) open to all members of the credit union every two months at which they will report on important news and developments. Second, during such meetings, should the assembled members come to consensus on a proposal (which any member is empowered to bring before the body), the Association Delegates will be obligated to do everything in their power to push for the enactment of the policies called for by the members. Finally, the Association Delegates will commit to pushing for the incorporation of the participatory processes of the Members Association into the structure of the credit union itself, with the aim of eventually making the Association redundant.

    This final goal will likely take time, since, in most credit unions, only a third of the board seats are up for reelection each year. Nonetheless, since credit union annual meeting attendance is (for complex historical reason, and with some exceptions) abysmally low, those seats should be easy pickings for the delegates of a well organized Members Association (as long as they make sure to check the credit union's bylaws to see if you have to turn in a petition in advance to be on the ballot; many credit unions don't allow for nominations from the floor at their annual meetings). In all honesty, a committed block of 25-50 people in a credit union of 20,000+ members would likely be sufficient for success, and, with a few seats at the table, the new board members could start successfully pushing for new initiatives to increase member engagement and participation right off the bat (one such idea: democratizing community giving).

    At its core, the credit union movement offers a truly inspiring alternative to our current economic mess. The "Too Big To Fail" banks seem to operate on the assumption that the rest of society exists to serve their interests (as was most gallingly demonstrated by the bailouts). Credit unions, on the other hand, are predicated on the idea that financial institutions should exist to serve their patrons, not the other way around. By striving to make our credit unions more participatory and responsive to member needs and values through the creation of Members Associations, we will be contributing to the creation of a just financial order that reflects the values of the classic credit union motto: "Not For Profit, Not For Charity, But For Service!"

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