January 2, 2012

Bookshelf: People Helping People

People Helping People: A History of the Maine Credit Union Movement

Credit Union History - "People Helping People," is a well-used credit union slogan, and also, it turns out, a common title for books about state movements. Edward M. Walters used the phrase for his 2009 history of credit unionism in Texas, but its first appearance seems to be on John W. Zerillo and Ted Desveaux's 2004 book People Helping People: A History of the Maine Credit Union Movement.
Though commissioned and published by the Maine Credit Union League, Zerillo and Desveaux's work is especially interesting because, unlike many other trade-association supported histories, it doesn't treat the development of its sponsoring organization as a proxy for the history of the movement as a whole. While the Maine Credit Union League is the focus of one quite readable and interesting chapter, the most fascinating parts of the book come when the authors tell stories of early credit unionism that highlight the culture of the early credit union movement.

Whether recounting the often strange logistics of running a credit union out of one's home (such as being woken up at 4:00 AM on Christmas morning to make a loan to a member who needed to visit a sick relative in Canada) or recalling the purpose of the very first loan made by Ste. Famille FCU (to buy a milk cow, of which the book contains a photo), such personal accounts powerfully convey the sense of purpose felt by early credit union volunteers. While modern credit unions still use the term "movement" (with some temporary lapses of "industry" from time to time), People Helping People's oral history component helps communicate what that term meant to previous generations of credit unionists.
Since the Maine Legislature was very late in passing a state-wide credit union law, only three credit unions were founded (thanks to special acts of the Legislature) prior to the passage of the Federal Credit Union Act in 1934. As a result of their unorthodox way in which they were established, these credit unions had a variety of idiosyncrasies, such as a huge, twenty-four person board of directors and extra-restrictive membership requirements, that set them apart from the rest of the movement for decades.
A final valuable element of People Helping People is the long memory it provides of banker attacks on the credit union movement. In many credit union histories, bank opposition to credit unions is brushed off with a vague mention of the issue of credit union taxation. By contrast, Zerillo and Desveaux come back to the topic repeatedly in a way that underscores the variety of tactics that bankers have used over the years in their campaigns to suppress competition from the cooperative model. Whether in the form of opposition to credit union enabling legislation in the 1920s and 1930s, attempts to put banks branches in factories with credit unions in the 1960s, or regulatory wrangling in the 1990s, the book's authors don't shy away from discussions of the movement's often tense relationship with the banks.

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