Will CUs Be The Fable, Or The Moral of the Tale

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Everyone has heard some version of the old joke about the 900-pound gorilla. The set up: What does a 900-pound gorilla do? The punchline: Whatever it wants! In this joke, the gorilla is a metaphor for potentially enormous power and the joke is funny because we all understand the long odds of success in fighting a massive, powerful, force.

So my question is this: are we the gorilla or are we the ones who let it do whatever it wants? The bankers continue to attack credit unions with the ferocity of a challenged alpha male, despite the fact that credit unions' share of the total financial services market hasn't increased from the 3% or 4% mark and credit union membership growth is stagnant.

Yet, here we are-credit union cooperatives-the last remaining financial democracies built on principle rather than the profit motive. We will remain, I suppose, until we are picked off, one by one, by market pressures, merged, liquidated or decide to turn our backs on the very purpose for which we were formed. Or, we could be taxed, thanks to banker efforts and their massive campaign contributions and the influence big money buys in Congress. Either way, we face extinction. Is there another option?

Folks, this is a slowly burning fire. Can someone please sound the alarm? The sad thing about that joke is that it's on us! First of all, the joke is unfair to the gorilla because a gorilla should be free to roam its habitat, and second, because the gorilla is a peaceful creature until provoked, content to tend to the needs of its pack and assure its genes are passed to the next generation. Such is life in the animal kingdom. But bankers need no provocation. Our very existence is a provocation to them. The new jungle battleground is in the states and the strategy is divide and conquer.

If we want to survive, we must become the gorilla, because here in the animal kingdom, power rules. We can learn much from observation and by observing the use of power, especially unchallenged, unrestrained power, we learn that individual expression is checked, variety is limited and choice is not an option.

We've been here before, haven't we? And what did we learn? Simply, that by combining our forces, we gain strength. By presenting a united front, the weakest among us (or the smallest) is able to repel the assault of the enemy and ensure our mutual survival. But we also have the power of our fellowship to keep us strong. We have trust in each other born of our interdependence; our reliance on the word we give to one another that bind us. What is the word for that?

The word is cooperation. As defined by Webster, a cooperative is an association of persons for common benefit; an enterprise or organization owned by and operated for the benefit of those using its services. A cooperative is marked by its willingness and ability to work with others.

Our cooperative nature is the underpinning of our movement. It's the structure of credit unions that makes them unique and when we choose to do business with other cooperatives we extend our reach and enable credit unions to serve more Americans. The continuing support of this pooling of skills, products and services is our best defense AND our best offense.

I don't have to remind you that the operational principle of banks is based on competition, not cooperation, do I? Yet, they cooperate when it comes to fighting us, in setting us against each other (state charter against federal, small against large) and claiming false damage to their burgeoning bottom line.

Here in the animal kingdom, we can glean many more relevant lessons about the advantage of mutual cooperation and the best teacher is Aesop, of Fable fame. Here are just two of the best:

An eagle was soaring through the air when suddenly it heard the whiz of an arrow, and felt itself wounded to death. Slowly, it fluttered down to the earth, with its life-blood pouring out of it. Looking down upon the arrow with which it had been pierced, it found the shaft of the arrow had been feathered with one of its own plumes. 'Alas!' it cried, as it died.

A lion used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarreling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four.

The moral lesson of these fables is clear: don't give your enemies the means to attack you and don't let your enemy divide you.

If credit union cooperatives and those cooperatives that serve and promote them are not supported it amounts to the same thing, doesn't it? Doesn't it weaken us, just a little bit each time, when a credit union takes a bank as a business partner? I can already hear some howling about free market principles and competition. I'm no Pollyanna, but don't we have the means to provide whatever kind of product and service we need within the credit union sphere already? There are data processing co-ops, indirect lending co-ops, ATM and shared branching co-ops, mortgage service co-ops and on and on.

There is no litmus test for CU loyalty and I am certainly not advocating one. I'm just asking a simple question. Can't we all just cooperate? Won't the 900-pound gorilla stand up?

Tom Reed is President/CEO of Encore Electronic Services Cooperative, Inc., of Falls Church, Va. He can be reached at 703-241-0377 or treed encore.coop

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