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:

After leaving New Orleans, my next encounter with the credit union/labor union connection was in Shreveport, where I interviewed Martha Morris, who is a VP at Shreveport FCU. Ms. Morris got her start as a worker at a plywood plant in northern Louisiana, and learned about credit unions while on a union-sponsored trip to Wisconsin. She then got involved with helping get the credit union started, and ran it out of her living room for the first several years, the experience of which launched her into a credit union career.

Also in Shreveport, I learned a bit about how credit unions could cut both ways in terms of workplace power dynamics. When present Shreveport FCU CEO Helen Godfrey-Smith started with that credit union in the early 1980s, its primary common bond was municipal employees. To get a loan at that time, an employee would need to obtain a signed permission slip from a supervisor, which provided those managers with an useful tool for enforcing workplace discipline. Ms. Godfrey-Smith eliminated that requirement as one of her first acts as manager, but its existence suggests how credit unions have served as a point of conflict in struggles between labor and management.

Such a conflict became quite explicit in the case of the Municipal Employees Credit Union of Baltimore, Maryland. According to board chair (and retired Baltimore Fire Chief) Herman Williams, Jr., his credit union has traditionally reserved a board seat for a representative of each major city department, and the person filling that role has tended to be the head of that department. However, a number of years back, as part of a conflict between the police union and the police commissioner, a union representative ran against the commissioner for the police seat and won.

An even more robust role is performed by unions in the case of the Municipal Credit Union of New York City. While I did not get a video of our conversation, MCU board member Mark Brantley and I discussed the topic over lunch while I was in New York. According to him, the unions' ability to mobilize their members to vote in board elections means that they wield substantial influence over the governance of that credit union.

The fact that about half of the people I interviewed over the course of my trip mentioned labor unions' involvement in their credit unions in some way seems to suggest against the conventional wisdom that the only thing the two institutions share is a name. To the contrary, both were created with the goal of improving the economic lot of working people and, upon consideration, it makes sense that their histories would be intertwined. Just how intertwined they were, and whether those connections were more common in the African American credit union experience than in other wings of the movement, remains unclear, however, which suggests some interesting future lines of inquiry...

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