Two profound declarations from President Obama's recent State of the Union address have substantial relevance for credit unions, "If there's one thing we can all agree on it's that we hated the bank bailout," and "Let's give small business the credit they need to stay afloat." Mr. President, we couldn't agree more.
We've seen a jobs bill work its way through Congress that would help hardworking American families, as legislators castigate Wall Street for its self-serving ways. In this environment, the time is ripe for credit unions to make their mark by offering common sense solutions that can put Americans back to work. Yet we've been unable to gain traction on legislation that lessens restrictions on member business lending. Why?
After all, credit unions are one of the nation's largest membership groups with more than 90 million members, nearly two-and-a-half times the size of the influential AARP. But unlike AARP, credit unions rarely engage their rank and file membership in legislative battles, even though the bills would ultimately benefit those members.
In the competitive political world of Washington, it's hard to distinguish one voice from another. Issues and interests change faster than days on a calendar. But our voice is not rising above the din. If credit unions want to make a dent in the political landscape, we must have a louder voice-and the only way to do that is to add more voices.
We should adopt a simple strategy-one that worked well in Obama's 2008 campaign-and get millions of people engaged and millions more contributing small sums. The California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues have embraced this strategy for 2010. We are going credit union to credit union, encouraging our leaders to share policy priorities with employees and members. We are asking them to enroll them in our grassroots network and contribute small sums to our PAC.
We aren't alone. Last year we saw the power of member outreach at its best when the Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union sent a request to its membership on a hot congressional issue. About 20,000 of their members answered the call. Similar efforts in Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts and Texas, to name a few, have shown there is a willingness of members to make a difference.
In California, a 2.5% participation rate by members would flood our 53 House members and two senators with 250,000 communications. If replicated across the nation, that 2.5% would garner two million contacts. Those are the kinds of numbers that powerhouse associations produce. And that's what credit unions must produce if we want to start winning.
Taking issues to employees and members can seem like a daunting proposition. We hear concerns about overwhelming members with complex issues or getting too political. Yet, if you look closely at the people who make up our membership, you will see many who are teachers, labor union members and government professionals are already deeply involved in advocacy on behalf of other organizations. We should not underestimate the willingness of a reasonable percentage of our members to come to the aid of their credit union. After all, they and their families benefit from their membership each and every day.
Public policy challenges will continue unabated, and the time to build a national network of supporters is yesterday. We have the ability to grow a real grassroots army capable of educating Congress and the administration, and to do so in a way that positions credit unions to become a viable part of the solution. But we have to build the grassroots network ourselves. We have the raw numbers to become a premier power in Washington. Imagine the discomfort it would cause bankers to wake up one day and see credit unions take the field with a true grassroots army behind them.
It's credit unions' choice. Let's choose to change the game.
Bob Arnould is senior vice president of government affairs at the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues. He can be reached at 916-325-1361 or BobA@ccul.org