Credit unions vs. banks

Credit unions vs. banks – credit unions launch grassroots campaign to lobby for legislation in Congress

Buddy Gill

How a Massive Grassroots Campaign Mobilized Credit Union Members and Beat the Bank Lobby

We had to recast the message debate away from banks vs. credit unions. We had to make the debate about what’s best for your district’s constituents. And we had to give credit union members, and people who wanted to become members one day, a stake in the outcome.

Grassroots political muscle is alive and well. You can look no further than to the remarkable effectiveness of the 70 million-strong credit union movement to see if investing in grassroots organizing pays worthwhile political dividends.

Ask your member of Congress which issue they heard the most about this session of Congress. Labor issues? Health care? The religious right’s agenda? Nope. Here’s what they were hearing loud and clear: Will you protect me and my credit union? (Pity the poor congressional staffer answering the literally thousands of phone calls and constituent letters.)

What’s this fuss all about? The banking industry has been feuding with the credit union movement since Congress passed a Depression era law to allow people to pool their funds. Credit unions are not-for-profit financial cooperatives, taking in members who have a common bond e.g., work for a local company, belong to a church, or live together in a community, etc. A Reagan era deregulation allowed these so-called select employee groups, many of which had an employee base too small to successfully form and sustain their own credit union, to join existing federal credit unions.

But the American Banking Association sued to stop this practice. In February, it won a 5-4 Supreme Court decision challenging the ability of federal credit unions to accept these different groups under a credit union’s roof. But was this really a win for the banks, or a big loss for consumers? With that Court decision, millions of credit union members faced the prospect of being forced out of their credit union against their will.

But the credit union movement was prepared. The leading trade associations had organized a national Credit Union Campaign for Consumer Choice, and pre-emptively introduced legislation in Congress, the Credit Union Membership Access Act. This legislation would nullify the Court’s decision and maintain the ability of credit unions to serve and attract new members. The banks were vowing to block the legislation-it’s easier to kill a bill than pass one. The fight was on.

The banks are formidable adversaries. Most local bankers are quintessential political insiders. They sit on the campaign finance committees of members of Congress. Political contributions by the banks dwarf those made by credit unions. Bankers are integral to the economic well-being of any congressional district or state. They are capable of amassing huge warchests to wage legislative fights. Simply put: it’s just plain hard for your typical member of Congress to say “no” when a banker calls to ask for a favor.

People Truly Love Their Credit Union

For the past 14 years, credit unions have topped the most popular financial institution category, according to the American Banker’s annual consumer survey. Polls and instant response groups conducted by Luntz Research confirmed that while people may be ambivalent or may not like banks, a far more compelling point was that Americans love credit unions – including people who don’t now belong to one.

This had an important implication for our overall message strategy. Trying to demonize big banks for picking on little credit unions would not get the kind of traction we wanted. More importantly, it could alienate the core group we needed to persuade: the members of Congress who ultimately would decide our fate, and potentially galvanize all those bankers who sit on finance committees back home.

We had to recast the message debate away from banks vs. credit unions. We had to make the debate about what’s best for your district’s constituents. And we had to give credit union members, and people who wanted to become members one day, a stake in the outcome of the debate.

Crafting a Strategy and Tactics

The campaign team crafted a set of strategic objectives. From these we developed specific tactics to reach our goal – passing our legislation, first through the House Banking Committee, then the full House of Representatives. Our unifying purpose: How to best give our friends in Congress the political cover they needed to be with us, and say “no” to the banks when it came time to vote.

* Raise the noise level. The old cliche about the squeaky wheel getting the grease applies here. We wanted to make sure that both the Washington, D.C., and congressional district offices saw and heard from credit union supporters of all stripes, until staffers were overwhelmed by the issue. Our campaign did a limited but effective national cable television buy to stir up our troops and alert them to contact their member of Congress. Credit union CEOs and League presidents visited local newspapers’ editorial boards to encourage coverage of our issue.

* Have the right issue champion(s) inside Congress. Fortunately, Speaker Gingrich has always been a friend of credit unions and they have helped him in past campaigns. While not being anti-bank, the Speaker was pro-credit union. He also was wise enough to see the potential electoral consequences for Republicans in tough re-election fights. We had our champion, and he delivered. Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach also deserves strong credit for moving the bill forward in a bipartisan fashion.

* De-politicize the issue. We could not afford partisan fights, with 1998 elections looming on the horizon. We targeted inside-the-beltway newspaper advertising. We wanted Hill staffers to see that our bill had as co-sponsors both Speaker Gingrich (Speakers rarely co-sponsor legislation) and Minority Whip David Bonior. Touting this fact helped give political cover from both the aisle to support the bill.

* Show that America’s Most Potent Political Forces Love Credit Unions, Too. What issue agendas do the Consumer Federation of America and Americans for Tax Reform have in common? The AFL-CIO and the Small Business Survival Committee? The Seniors Coalition and the Fraternal Order of Police? Not much. But we were able to successfully woo and weave their endorsements and support into an impressive tapestry. We also wanted to ensure that Republicans saw strong business support for our effort, to counter bank ties in that arena.

Using outbound phone banks and credit union people-power, thousands of businesses joined an ad hoc coalition Business Alliance to Protect Credit Union Choice. We needed this vehicle to provide an avenue for the businesses and organizations to get involved.

* Make the fight about the folks back home. Every congressional district in this country has between 40,000 and 300,000 credit union members in it, a simple fact we communicated.

* Use the right local messengers. Even with the national groups weighing in, it was more important to have local representatives of these groups take a public stand for credit unions.

To achieve the objectives, the campaign used the full range of tools available to political professionals: polls, paid television, print, earned media and events, coalition building, phonebanks, field organizing and a web site (

Our ultimate fate would be determined by the House Banking Committee, a place where the bankers had concentrated their lobbying firepower and contributions for years. Our lobbyists knew that we had to win the outside game and make the issue about the folks back home if we were to prevail. The 60-person Banking Committee had a large number of members elected with less than 55 percent in 1996.

Guiding Grassroots Communications Principles

So what did we do to get those 70 million Americans excited about contacting their member of Congress and weighing in for credit unions? Simple, eternal principles:

* Give people a message.

* Tell them what’s at stake for them.

* Use the right language.

* Give them the tools to empower them to act.

* Regularly communicate the impact their efforts are having.

* Be creative and flexible.

* Customize tactics to targets, avoid “one size fits all” because every Member of Congress needs a unique approach.

How Newspaper Ads Helped Execute the Strategy

Working closely with the credit union folks back in each target member’s district, the campaign gave them a powerful organizing tool. Using their local knowledge and the political expertise of state field organizers, we recruited the best mix of local “grass-tops” names. These people were judged to be effective advocates, or at least media attention-getters, based on our case-by-case analysis of each member’s district, their support base, and (where applicable) their upcoming electoral prospects.

We used lists of the largest businesses in the district with credit union affiliations and employees that could be affected. We looked at FEC campaign records to match up local political givers to their businesses with credit union ties. We recruited influential community activists and well-known “white hat” non-profit organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police.

We made a special effort to get family businesses/mom and pop shops (such as restaurants). In short, once compiled, our ads screamed “we represent your district.” We then placed full page newspaper ads in the two week period leading up to the House Banking Committee vote, focusing on both key leaders at the top of the Committee hierarchy as well as marginal incumbents. The ads contained signatures from nine to 12 individuals.

Taken together, this accomplished several strategic objectives in one fell swoop:

* We made the issue public.

* The local media began to cover the story.

* It put local faces on the issue. Most ad signers also wrote personal letters and attended private meetings or town halls to express their views.

* The ad tone was a cry for help and never mentioned the word “bank.”

* It mobilized credit union people with a call to action, giving a Member’s address and setting up an expectation of quicker action.

* The ads were purposefully not fancy, but were rather simple local efforts.

* Actual signatures were obtained to demonstrate the commitment of the signers and provide a demonstration of support of people from different walks of life meeting together for the common good.

* Because they were local, the ads helped us avoid appearing to be a top-down campaign, where it looks like the shots are being called in Washington.

Turn That Noise Down, Please! Reactions: “My office heard from thousands of credit union members… This bill generated more calls and mail than any other issue since I have taken office,” said Cong. Steve Largent (R-OK). Comments like these are, to a grassroots professional’s ears, plaudits that make us proud. Members begged to stop the calls and letters, but because it was real people – not fabricated – the relentless pleas from constituents poured in to both Washington and to district offices.

Our campaign regularly used blast faxes to send action alerts to thousands of credit unions. This gave us the ability to get a message out directly to a credit union CEO in 24 hours with specific instructions. Credit unions across the country adopted numerous tactics to facilitate member communication with Congress, in addition to urging people to contact Congress in credit union newsletters, or the campaign’s web site (which provides an e-mail option).

For example, some set up phone lines in their lobbies, so members after cashing a check or making a deposit could take three minutes to call their congressmen and urge them to support the bill. Letter writing networks were organized, using the volunteer board structure and vendor relationships of credit unions. Truly, the real work was done at the branch manager level where the day-to-day contact takes place, and where the tellers know your name.


To the shock of most long-time Capitol Hill observers, the credit unions rolled the banks. First, in March the House Banking Committee passed the Credit Union Membership Access Act by voice vote, after defeating some contentious amendments. Then on April 1, less than five weeks after the Supreme Court decision that precipitated the crisis, the House of Representatives voted 411 to 8 to pass our bill. To those who accuse it of being a “do nothing” Congress, look no further. In fact, Congress does act quickly – when enough constituents back home call for action.

The real story here is about organizing people, and that people power can still beat well-connected insiders and well-heeled contributors. Further, as lawmakers looked to this year’s elections, a new “third rail” of politics has been created. Don’t mess with the credit unions, or do so at your own electoral peril.

And remember: credit union folks stand ready to help their friends, just as they did for Speaker Gingrich, who did not forget them in their time of need.

In today’s grassroots lobbying campaigns, just as in political campaigns, jujitsu is often the best strategy. Find a way to use your opponents strengths against them at precisely the same time you use your own strengths to your best advantage. David can beat Goliath. It certainly helps to mobilize a thousand Davids for every one Goliath.

But as any good lobbyist will tell you, it is paramount to demonstrate, by word and deed, that your constituency is capable and willing to do everything in its power to make it easy for legislators to say “yes.” Help them win in the public eye by standing up for your cause.


“Stop Them” Credit Union Campaign for Consumer Choice Producer: Trippi McMahon Squier

ANNOUNCER: For 70 million Americans, credit unions provide a low-cost alternative to big banks. Helping families with low-rate loans to buy a house, buy a new car or send a child to college. Now the big banks that charge higher loan rates and high ATM fees want to deny six out of 10 working Americans their right to join a credit union. And only you can stop them. Call your congressman today. Tell them to support HR1151 – and protect our credit unions.

Buddy Gill is president of Gill Consulting Group, a firm specializing in grassroots and issue advocacy campaigns based in Arlington, VA.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group