Striking workers of Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, Ill., have found their credit union isn't the sympathetic place it used to be.
Once upon a time, Citizens Equity Federal Credit Union gave striking workers loan deferments until the end of a strike. That's not true in the bitter, 14-month-old battle between the United Auto Workers and Caterpillar over a new contract.
Citizens Equity, the country's 10th-largest credit union, with $1.4 billion in assets, gave strikers a 90-day break when the strike began last June. After that, members had to come in to devise a payment schedule.
John Siefken, president and chief executive of Citizen's Equity, said the decision has angered some strikers and led to a brutal board election. But he said it was necessary for the credit union's financial health.
"Some guys on the line are accusing us of being lackeys for the company by not extending loan payments indefinitely," said Mr. Siefken, who has weathered a number of strikes in his 25 years as the credit union's top official.
"We're not going to stick our necks out further and further when there's a possibility they'll never go back to work," Mr. Siefken said. "That's not likely, but it's possible."
Although most workers have agreed to pay back at least a portion of their loans, the strike has caused delinquencies and chargeoffs to increase at Citizens Equity, according to data from Callahan & Associates, a Washington-based consulting firm.
The ratio of delinquent loans to total loans for June was 0.66%, up 27% from the year-earlier period. Total chargeoffs for the first six months were $1.9 million, up 12% from a year earlier.
Mr. Siefken said the situation would be worse if Citizens Equity granted deferments.
"Thank God we did what we did," Mr. Siefken said. "Early on we saw the strike was going to go on for a long, long time. The chargeoffs are slightly up, but we nipped that in the bud."
Several factors influenced Citizens Equity's decision, Mr. Siefken said. First, the strike already is the longest in the company's history by seven months. Second, idle workers are considered capable of paying at least a portion of their debts because the union is paying strikers $300 a week rather than the usual $100.
In addition, Caterpillar has continued to operate, which it didn't do during previous strikes, with temporary workers and workers who have crossed the picket line.
The fundamental reason, though, is that while Caterpillar employees once were the sole members - and therefore owners - of the credit union, they're now a minority because the institution diversified its membership base in the 1980s.
Caterpillar employees make up only 10% of Citizens Equity's 180,000 members, but many of the rest have Caterpillar connections as former employees or family members.
The change was brought home during a March board election, when union members ran for five vacant seats.
The five union members won only 17% of the vote in a ballot election, Mr. Siefken said.
"It was extremely ugly," he said. During the campaign, Citizens Equity reported that one of the union candidates had filed for bankruptcy a few years before and cost the credit union money, Mr. Siefken said.
It's possible that nothing would have changed had the election gone the other way, if the experience of one of the other half-dozen Caterpillar credit unions is any indication.
Three union members of York (Pa.) Tracktown Credit Union won seats on the board of the $30 million-asset institution in February on a platform similar that of their counterparts in Peoria.
Once on top, though, their views changed, said York Tracktown chairman Mary Wagner.
"Those individuals have been elected to the board and have found since that it's not easy to change the bylaws of a credit union," she said. "We are in very good financial condition but have to fight to stay there" because of the strike and can't afford to grant indefinite deferments.