Backlash Against Banks a Boon for Local Credit Unions
An estimated 14,700 Wisconsinites joined credit unions in October, siting frustration with bank fees and for-profit corporate structures.
When the Occupy Milwaukee protest gathered outside his bank on Oct. 15, Prescott Sobol said he knew it was time for him to switch to a credit union.
"It was embarrassing to be part of the Occupy protests, when they were outside Chase Bank," said Sobol, who moved his account to the UW Credit Union on Friday. "I feel like I'm behind the curve on this."
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Thousands of consumers in southeastern Wisconsin who have switched from banks to credit unions in the last month are encouraging others to follow suit as part of Bank Transfer Day Saturday.
Credit unions — unlike big banks — are non-profits that are owned by their members and have no stockholders. They offer the same services as banks, including checking and savings accounts, credit cards, loans and trusts.
Riding a movement that grew out of Bank of America's since-retracted debit card charge, and gained traction with the unaffiliated Occupy Wall Street protests and plenty of local organizers, Bank Transfer Day has been a powerful social media campaign with more than 75,000 "attendees" on its Facebook event.
"This is really just the tip of the iceberg," said Christine Henzig, director of communications for the Wisconsin Credit Union League, an association of more than 200 credit unions across the state. "It’s being passed friend to friend, family member to family member. Bank Transfer Day is just one small manifestation of a larger public awakening of the value of owning your financial institution."
Credit unions see spike in membership
The Credit Union National Association estimated that 14,700 new members joined credit unions in Wisconsin in the month following Bank of America's announcement of its $5 debit card charge on Sept. 29.
According a CUNA survey, credit unions gained 650,000 new members nationwide between Sept. 29 and Oct. 29 — more than the number of people who joined in all of 2010.
More than 80 percent of credit unions surveyed attributed member growth to consumer reaction to new bank fees, and the movement surrounding Bank Transfer Day.
Louise Ptacek, who opened an account Friday at the Educators Credit Union, said she switched from M&I Bank because she was angered when M&I executives received a $95 million package in payouts after the bank was purchased July 5 by the Bank of Montreal.
"At some point, enough is enough," Ptacek said. "I like that the credit union is a non-profit."
Jim Henderson, vice president of marketing at the Educators Credit Union, said while the organization generally aims for 5 percent annual increases in membership, there was a 25 percent jump between between last October and this one. The credit union has branches throughout the Milwaukee area — including Glendale, Greenfield, Milwaukee and Waukesha.
But that isn't the only local credit union seeing an uptick in membership.
Landmark Credit Union, which serves about 172,000 members in southeastern Wisconsin and branches in Brookfield, Oak Creek, Sussex, Waukesha and Wauwatosa, had a net gain of 945 members in October, 733 of whom opened checking accounts.
"That's much higher than normal," said Pat Ransom, vice president of marketing.
Ransom credited Landmark's free checking accounts, which have no minimum balance or monthly fees and offer 7.5 percent interest on the first $500, for attracting so many members in a rough economic time.
Henzig said she isn't surprised by the recent trend, considering that credit unions gained their most members during the Great Depression.
"There’s no surprise now that in these challenging times, people are coming back to that," Henzig said. "It’s nothing new. They’re coming home."
Henzig said because a credit union is a non-profit owned by its members, and operated by a volunteer board of directors, profits are cycled back into the credit union to provide savings for its members.
Henzig said when she and her husband refinanced their car loan with a credit union, it cost them $14 and saved them $850.
"Do they have to do that? No," Henzig said. "They could have handed that profit to shareholders, but credit unions don’t have shareholders. There is no small group sitting in an ivory tower looking for profits."
The Co-op Factor
Not everyone making the switch is looking primarily for savings.
"For me it's about keeping money local, in a not-for-profit environment," said Sobol, an English lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. "That's a cause I can get down with. I'm hoping savings will be the icing on the proverbial cake."
This is where the Bank Transfer Day movement collides with the Occupy movement, and similar-intentioned protests against Gov. Scott Walker.
"I would trace it back to the battle against Walker," Sobol said. "Walker and others, by underegulating industry, they’re making it possible for mega-banks and mega-corporations to dominate local communities."
At the Brewery Credit Union, which covers nine counties in southeastern Wisconsin, CEO Jim Schrimpf said the organization's mission is to build financial assets in lower-income communities in Milwaukee, offering a "fresh start account" to those who've been locked out of the banking system for overdrafting.
"Anything we make above operating expenses, that flows back to the community," said Schrmipf, whose organization has branches in Milwaukee, Waukesha and Greenfield.
Schrimpf said the bank also has many middle- to high-income members joining who want to invest in the community. He said the credit union has seen its biggest spike in membership numbers in the last month since they opened its Bay View location six years ago.
"We can't put away the membership packets because as soon as we put them away we have to take them back out," he said.