How To Go Hiking, Keep A Straight Face, & Help A Little Guy All At The Same Time

Congratulations to any and all credit unionists who can Hike the Hill this week for CUNA's GAC and do so with a straight face. Because you've come a long way, baby, and the ability to talk one game while walking another is the true hallmark of a Washington insider, and isn't that what credit unions set out to do a decade ago?

To make a go of it in Washington means being comfy with contradiction (talk fiscal responsibility, walk huge deficits), being happy with hypocrisy (talk the working man, walk nice annual raises and lifetime health care), and being in line with the incongruous (talk Social Security's sound future, walk not worrying about it because you have a separate plan).

This week more than 4,000 credit union representatives will Hike the Hill to talk about the CU difference, CU uniqueness, and the CU tax exemption-which every group will be "educated" to explain, is based on the democratic nature of a cooperative structure.

So there's no need, Mr. Congressman, for you to look out your window to observe what's going on in our credit union backyard-because it's ugly out there, and getting uglier.

Credit union charter conversions have always been shady undertakings at best, but there's a new tactic being deployed by the instigators behind some of these conversions that should be all the talk of GAC. How can anyone from the CUNA chairman to CUNA CEO Dan Mica to any other credit union representative take the stage and extol the virtues of democratically run financial institutions when that democracy is under the harshest assault seen in the 100-year history of credit unions? The discussion will certainly make some folks uncomfortable, but can you think of any change that has ever occurred without being disagreeable to someone?

Regular readers of the Credit Union Journal saw our front-page report in the Feb. 12 issue in which Scott Stiens, a member of Lafayette FCU in Kensington, Md., reported that his checking account has been closed and his ATM access cut off because he has been active in opposing that credit union's now aborted attempt to become a bank. Incredibly, there have also been blog postings and e-mails alleging that Steins is not alone. In Michigan, it was alleged that after the recent Annual Membership Meeting of a Michigan credit union that also attempted to convert before backing off, that a member who was critical of that plan was told his line of credit was terminated and his membership closed. At press time there was no confirmation it was true, but it's somewhat of a moot point-just the suggestion that credit unions are expelling members who question the board and management flies in the face of every claim of being democratically run.

Just when did the credit union motto become "Once A Member, Always A Member-Unless You Disagree With The Board"?

Just what is the whole purpose, after all, of having an annual membership meeting? Door prizes?

Just when did credit union democracy become a sad example of George Orwell's Animal Farm with a twist: "All members are equal, but some members are LESS equal than others." Orwell's intention, by the way, was to comment on the hypocrisy of a situation-and for effect, the statement was made by pigs.

At this year's GAC many credit unions will get their first real look at the new "Little Guy" character CUNA has created to symbolize credit unions. The trade group distributed more than 16,000 buttons around Washington emblazoned with his likeness, all designed to remind Congress that credit unions represent America's working class, and if credit unions don't look out for the little guy, well, who will? Who indeed? It's pretty ironic that the one institution where the little guy has a chance to stand up at an annual meeting and ask questions directly of the board of directors that represents him, regardless of his balance or the number of shares he owns, is the same institution that grabs him by the seat of his pants and expels him not just from the meeting but the institution itself should he ask a question the board and management don't like.

We often hear references to the "lessons of Sept. 11." On that day the U.S. was prepared, as it long had been, for the one big attack; we had submarines and aircraft carriers and battalions of soldiers ready and waiting. Instead, the attack came from the inside by 19 nondescript guys using our own aircraft. When it comes to Congress, CUs always have the bankers on their radar, their B-52s in the air in preparation for the Big Taxation Attack that isn't coming, while behind them the real "sleeper cells" lie.

Credit unions may be in town this week, but they are not what's on Washington's mind. Forget where you might stand on the Iraq war, the one thing we've all heard is it's a fight for freedom. What's sad is how little thought is given to what that really means. It isn't freedom to have fast food 24x7 or drive an SUV. It isn't freedom to choose a credit union over a bank. More than anything else, it is the precious freedom to think for yourself and speak up if you want.

That fight for freedom isn't limited to Baghdad. It's a fight that can and should take place inside the comforts of a Hilton hotel. Enlist now and walk the talk. The little guy is counting on you.

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com.