A Democratic Renaissance Emerging In Credit Unions

Three events, two ongoing, one finished for now, have centered around member voting on the future direction of their cooperatives.

Each election is triggered by specific circumstances.  But they illustrate the benefits of going to member-owners for approval.

Voting is the essence of democratic governance, whether this is for local school board candidates, a political office or national politics.

The instinctive “rightness” of individual voting is so obvious that  the most authoritarian regimes  put on a charade of democratic process.  For even the most dictatorial leaders, voting connotes legitimacy.

In America, freedom and voting are inextricably linked.   When those in power seek to perpetuate their positions, manipulating or questioning the voting process is an ever-present threat to democratic rule.

A Frustrated Member’s Article

One long-time credit union member expressed his exasperation with his Board’s “closed shop”  elections in this opening of a public article.

I asked a friend recently if she could provide an answer based on the following clues:

1) It has billions of dollars in assets;

2) The overseers are not elected, rather;

3) they are appointed among themselves;

4) there are never any elections; and

5) all meetings are closed.

My friend guessed Belarus – a good guess, but Belarus has elections.

The answer is Orange County’s very own SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union – the largest financial institution in the county and the fifth largest credit union in the nation. . .

The rest of the critique, Schools First . . .Democracy Last, by Dr.  Barry Resnick is here.

What makes credit union design unique is democratic governance–each member has one vote no matter their  savings and deposit balances.  Federal credit unions prohibit proxy voting  further reinforcing each member’s  ballot sovereignty.  Not all state charters have this limitation.

In credit unions, the people rule.  Cooperatives are, in theory, on the front lines in the practice democratic governance.  This was central to their public purpose and tax exemption. Since there have always been more poor people than financially well off, credit unions were intended to be a means to enhance economic equity for all.   Through member loans, the bulk of the population was to have  financing access that  those with wealth easily take for granted.

Moreover, voting for directors converts private, closed decision making in institutions into public accountability.

But to work, the people need to be informed even educated as to their owner role.   Voting is one of vital means for this process.   Candidates or leaders present their priorities to the membership  and seek support.

Democracy is much more than rules, bylaws, or following Robert’s Rules of Order at the annual meeting. These details do matter, but democracy requires a commitment for leaders to take their ideas to the public versus bureaucratic maneuvers to perpetuate positions of power.

Without the test of the ballot, incumbents may not see things as they are.  Rather they see the things that confirm to their assumptions or preferred way of looking at the world.

The Growing Distance

When  credit unions were predominately local,  member voting may be less vital because they see what’s happening with their own eyes.   When credit unions grow large, distant and generic, their responsiveness via democratic process becomes more crucial.

Credit unions have proven to be a success in creating very large, financially successful depository institutions.   But they rarely cultivate their members’ ownership role.

Absent voting where there are more candidates than open seats, credit union strategic priorities reflect incumbent power not policies  supported via a public contest of ideas and priorities.

When boards are on top, any public voting can be viewed as  threatening to their position.  Without leaders efforts to build “civic virtues” democracy can become form without substance.

Why Voting matters

“Democracy holds us together. We are a country rooted in the rule of law, where the protection of the rights of all people is paramount.” (G-20 Press release) Credit unions are a small but vital part of the democratic ethos that Americans often take for granted.

Member  voting is how their ownership  rights are cultivated and protected.  NCUA has long turned its back on any role in this responsibility.

When the will of the people is circumvented, the result is a growing erosion of member influence.  It is easier to lose member confidence than gain it.  Becoming customers versus owners, makes it easier for members to move accounts to a better deal whenever than comes along.

The Need for political courage

Democratic leadership is hard.  It takes courage and maturity to control the  human instinct to accumulate and maintain power.

Cooperatives  must evolve not merely financially, but also in their political  role with members if they are to remain bearers of their trust and unity.   Institutions should work for people, not the other way around.

Today, one can easily identify institutions and activities in the cooperative system that appear more motivated by self-interest than mutual benefit.

The first rule of democracy is the willingness to discuss, debate and argue about what troubles us.   Truth is not achieved by hiring a PR firm to sell a story or presenting a one-sided marketing campaign that has all the hallmarks of propaganda.

Transparency with full and timely information is the key to democratic practice.  I will follow with  commentary on three situations that I believe show the upside of cooperative democracy in action.

Also, a current  example of a credit union’s promotion of open board elections at Frontwave is described in this July 6 blog, Here They Go Again.



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