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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Credit Unions and the co-operative ecosystem

March 23, 2015
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Movements Moving Together 14.                 

The loss of perspective around 6th Principle solidarity that I spoke of in my last blog seems to be in play in Madison, WI. A recent report from the March 18, 2015 issue of the Credit Union Times Magazine critiques its own sector in this regard:

The best kept secret about credit unions might be the opportunities that exist in partnering with other local cooperatives.

Consider the statistics. Globally, the largest 300 cooperatives have collective revenues of $1.6 trillion. In the United States, a recent Filene Research Institute and National Credit Union Foundation report entitled Quantifying the Business Case for Credit Unions and Other Cooperatives revealed that cooperatives’ assets totaled $1.754 billion. A breakdown of those assets revealed $346 billion were non-financial cooperatives, $1.126 billion were credit unions and $282 billion were other financial cooperatives that were owned, at least in part, by non-financial cooperatives.

With shared principles of service to members, credit unions and their community cooperatives working together to build mutually beneficial relationships would be a no-brainer. Yet there seems to be a disconnect; even in Wisconsin, with its long history of cooperatives.

According to Holly Fearing, digital media strategist at CUNA Mutual Group and board member of natural foods cooperative Willy Street Coop, a combination of ideological misconceptions and lip service have created stumbling blocks to collaborative efforts.

“There's this mentality among cooperatives here in Madison that credit unions are very corporate, too similar to banks, and don't get the mission of cooperatives,” she said. “As for credit unions, they don't necessarily understand the structure of worker cooperatives. You can't treat cooperatives like a run of the mill business partnership.”

Worker cooperatives find themselves unable to turn to a credit union for a loan because of underwriting challenges. When Willy Street Coop was looking to pilot a Local Vendor Loan Fund to support the continued growth of its local food producers/vendors with loans in the $25,000 to $75,000 range, it wasn't a credit union that stepped up for a partnership but Slow Money Wisconsin, Forward Community Investments and UW-Extension's Food Finance Institute.

According to the article Fearing went on to say:

“We all talk about cooperation among cooperatives and it frustrates me because it feels a bit like lip service if our giving back to the community is simply the checks we write to charities,” she said. “We have to take an honest look and ask if we are really doing anything to fulfill our mission. How are we living the seven cooperative principles? If our mission is to support the cooperative industry then it's up to us to balance the ROI [Return on Investment] and hard numbers with a bit of a risk and leap of faith to find meaningful ways to help our local cooperatives succeed.”


I think that credit unions and cooperatives can get past this weird ideological barrier by getting together to talk…Once in a room together, suddenly there's this epiphany of we both care about the well being of our staff, what happens in the community, dollars staying local and the bigger picture economic factors. Get them in a room together and they find they share common ground despite the way they may operate their individual businesses.

The article goes on to cite examples of creative 6th Principle partnering in Wisconsin by Heartland Credit Union and Summit Credit Union as well as in Vancouver, BC by Vancity Credit Union. These illustrate the power inter-cooperation can unleash.

I have received some strong criticism for my last blog where I raised critical questions about how the NYC Coalition of Worker Co-operatives was framing their mission and strategy. They were genuine questions even if my tone was sharper than needed. And that, in my mind, is what is important. Critical thinking is empowering, especially when it is in a strong dialogue.

Our movements for deep social change have the same problems with receiving criticism as virtually everybody I know, including me. I doubt if your experience is that different from my own. Critical feedback disturbs one’s status quo, but that is what is empowering about it, as Fearing points out above. Protecting ourselves, our projects, our movements, or even sectors of our movements from criticism is, eventually, disempowering. It means we tend not to get into the room together to talk with each other where we can identify what is and isn’t working and what we, together, can do about it. When we are not doing this, solidarity withers and neo-liberal capitalists don’t have to worry.

(Hat tip to Evan Caspar-Flutterman of SolidarityNYC for alerting me to the CU Times article.)

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