There is, to put it mildly, an imbalance between credit unions and banks, especially when it comes to political clout. And in this, among the most electric of political years, countering that imbalance is of most importance to credit unions.
Since 1990, the banking industry has doled out nearly $200 million in contributions to congressional political campaigns. Over that same period, credit unions have scraped up just about $19 million.
At the end of last year, banks counted about 2 million employees nationwide. Credit unions counted about 255,000 full- and part-time employees, and about 98,000 volunteers.
Total bank assets at the end of last year were just over $13 trillion. Total credit union assets: about $776 billion.
To sum up, to date, banks have a 10 to 1 advantage over credit unions in political contributions; about a 9 to 1 advantage in "true believers;" and about a 17 to 1 advantage in financial size.
Yet, you are thinking to yourself: Credit unions have 90 million members--right? Won't that trump everything?
If only. While the 90 million is an impressive and, yes, a real number, it is not something that we can call up for any old reason at any old time. These are real people we are talking about--with families, jobs and lives that are subject to the pressures of soaring gas prices, turmoil in the housing market and just plain economic uncertainty like the rest of us.
That's not to say they will not react. Tell them they will lose their credit union and all of the ways that it helps their families--like saving them an average of $239 a year in low or no fees, lower loan rates and higher return on savings. Tell them they won't have that any longer to help pay for an extra tank of gas or two.
You will absolutely get a reaction in that case.
But, for the more day-to-day cases--such as pitching in to help credit unions reach their political goals--credit union members have plenty on their plates to keep them busy.
That's why the burden of taking action, politically, falls on the credit union volunteers and professional staff.
But the numbers clearly show we are at a disadvantage from the start--with less money, fewer people and smaller size than the other guys. We know that--dollar for dollar and person to person--we will not be able match the banking industry.
That's why CUNA takes a different approach in being politically active than just making cash donations.
We recommend a variety of special projects and recommend a focused approach to credit unions that allows them to get involved at the most effective level and with the most effective tools. We also employ tools of our own that help us to make the most of dollars contributed by credit unions to further their political goals.
Among the tools we recommend and use: political involvement. We urge credit unions--including staff and volunteers--to get involved in political activities coordinated by their state league or in a local political campaign of their choice. We know from experience that the more people are involved politically, the more they will stay involved. And, the more they stay involved, the more candidates see credit union participants as important resources to draw upon in future campaigns. To that end, we encourage credit union people to take part in campaign schools offered by their leagues. We also urge credit unions to conduct voter registration or a get out the vote campaign in their credit union.
Partisan and issue-oriented communications is another. We stress to credit unions the value of using their newsletters to inform members about candidates who support credit unions as among the most valuable ways for credit unions to make a real difference politically. Use of credit union information vehicles about political, legislative and regulatory issues also helps to drive home the credit union agenda. Further, when local candidates see credit union support expressed directly in credit union publications, they immediately see the value of credit unions as direct conduits to voters (who trust what they receive from their credit unions). Remember there are on average 207,000 credit union members per congressional district.
CUNA also participates in independent expenditures; we support candidates directly who support credit unions by taking action with targeted mailings and other devices to voters. Because these activities are truly independent, we do it without consultation with the candidate, as required by law. We select candidates for this support who have demonstrated to credit unions in their congressional district or state their commitment to credit union ideals and goals. Sometimes, our support has made an important difference in the candidate's race; at other times, less so. But, in either case, our action demonstrates to local candidates and their political organizations that credit unions are committed to those who commit to credit unions. Thus, it is worth a candidate's effort to consider committing to credit unions.
Do these methods and tactics place everything in perfect balance with the advantages that the banking industry holds? Not entirely, but each plays a role.
In this election year, credit unions have the real opportunity to make a difference--by becoming involved, supporting those who support credit unions, and taking action. Our role at CUNA is to facilitate credit unions in taking these actions, not only to counterbalance the banking industry's advantage--but to do what is right for America's credit union members.
Dan Mica is president/CEO of CUNA. He can be reached at 202-638-5777 or firstname.lastname@example.org.