The battle between banks and credit unions came to a head in Washington this week when the Supreme Court decided the AT&T Family Federal Credit Union case.
The nine justices agreed that members of a credit union must share a single, common bond.
While it was a hard-fought victory for the banking industry, which filed the lawsuit, Congress could overturn the decision.
Supporters of both industries were in town this week to lobby lawmakers.
Here's how one banker and one credit union executive see the situation.
Nancy L. Pierce came to Washington to fight for the future of credit unions.
"Bankers are attempting to put credit unions out of business or at least make us too small to be any kind of a competitive threat to them," she said. "We are here because we can not allow that to happen."
Ms. Pierce was one of about 4,000 executives attending the Credit Union National Association's government affairs conference who blitzed Capitol Hill Tuesday afternoon in a lobbying offensive.
The president and chief executive officer of $168 million-asset Federal Employees Credit Union, Kansas City, Mo., met face-to-face with Sen. John Ashcroft and Rep. Ike Skelton, Republican and Democrat, respectively, from Missouri.
Her message was consistent:
"We are fighting for the right to give more consumers access to credit," she said. "It takes about 1,000 members to organize a credit union. That eliminates two-thirds of American businesses from offering that option to their employees. Our message to Congress is that these employees should have access to the services of a credit union."
The lobbying gained urgency Wednesday when the Supreme Court ruled that occupation-based credit unions may not serve employees at more than one company. Reacting to the defeat, Ms. Pierce said credit unions now must focus on legislation that would free them to accept more members.
Ms. Pierce said she told lawmakers and their staffs that banks are wrong when they say big credit unions are simply untaxed banks.
"Credit unions have different missions than banks," she said. "When a banker opens the door to his bank in the morning, his sole purpose for doing so is to create a profit for his stockholders. When I open my door, my sole purpose for opening is to improve my members' well-being. My members are my shareholders."
Regardless of a credit union's size, the mission does not change, she said. "Whatever size a credit union is, it operates as a nonprofit cooperative," Ms. Pierce said. "Size does not change our philosophy, and does not change the way we do business."
Ms. Pierce did not go so far as to say that credit unions would not survive without expanding their membership base. But "if we are not allowed to offer products to all people who need them," she said, "we are prevented from fulfilling our mission."
Banks are not really interested in most of her customers, she said. Of her 49,000 members, 40% have balances of less than $100, and 70% have balances of less than $1,000.
"Banks only want our top 10%" of customers, she said. "So if banks are successful in putting us out of business, where are the rest going to go?"
Lawmakers were receptive, she said. The industry's bill to legalize wider membership has 136 co-sponsors in the House, including Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Ms. Pierce said she is not surprised by the strong support credit unions have seen in Congress. "We are more lovable than banks," she explained. "We have a heart."