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.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Oral History Tour Stop 2: Clarence Hall, Jr. of the Issaquana County FCU

March 3rd, 2014

For the second interview of my African American elder oral history tour, I headed west from the Jackson home of my gracious CouchSurfing hosts into rural Mississippi. Upon turning north off I-20 near Vicksburg, I found myself on a road that tracing the contours of the enormous earthen levees that shield the area’s expansive, seemingly endless cotton fields from the excesses of the Mississippi river. After about an hour in which the major road hazard consisted of flock of birds lazily congregating on the road, I arrived in Mayersville.

Consisting of a few hundred houses clustered literally in the shadow of the levee, the town is the modest seat of one of the poorest and least densely populated counties east of the Mississippi. The largest building in town is the County correctional facility, and as I turned into town, the signs quickly made it apparent that much of the newer housing stock had been been built with federal money. I pulled into the parking lot of the University of Mississippi Agricultural Extension building and gave a ring to Sherida, the credit union book-keeper who’d been my contact in setting up the interview. It turned out that she worked right across the street, and I followed her car a few blocks to the Issaquana County Federal Credit Union.

Housed in a small trailer about half the size of a shipping container that barely contains two desks, the credit union has been in operation since 1969, when its current 89 year old President, Clarence Hall, Jr. helped establish the institution. Sherida introduced me to Clarence then headed out. It being an unseasonably cold day for Mississippi (in the mid-20s), he had an ancient electric space heater running, and so we huddled our chairs around it, chatted for a few minutes about my project, and then began the interview:

Saturday, March 1, 2014

CU Oral History: Milton J. Carr, Jr. of the Arabi Sugar Workers FCU

Yesterday marked the start of my African American credit union oral history tour, and I was fortunate to kick off the project by meeting with Milton J. Carr, Jr., the former president of the Arabi Sugar Workers Federal Credit Union. In addition to being a retired sugar refinery worker, union officer, and credit union volunteer, Mr. Carr is quite the history buff who has been building a second career over the last decade as an historical tour guide. As a result, over the course of our discussion at his dining room table, he provided a fascinating historical sketch of the African American experience in the city and his native Lower Ninth Ward which offered invaluable context for better understanding the dynamics and story of his credit union. We covered a lot of ground in our conversation; check it out!