Two summers ago, at the U.S. Social Forum, I attended a panel discussion about ways to expand the use of credit unions as alternatives to the “too big to fail” banks whose risky investments had helped tank the economy. Each of the speakers—people involved in credit union leadership or advocacy—expressed confusion and frustration that they hadn’t already seen a post-crisis shift away from corporate banks and toward credit unions (which have the advantages of being not-for-profit, owned and governed by their depositors, far more likely than big banks to lend to small businesses, and not responsible for any global economic meltdowns).
It seemed that even as Americans were angry with Big Finance, they didn’t make the connection to their personal accounts.
Fast forward to last fall—when Occupy Wall Street was in full swing and activists were mobilizing around Bank Transfer Day, an effort to get customers to leave their Wall Street banks—and it seemed everybody was making the connection. Suddenly I was overhearing conversations on the ferry, on the bus, on the soccer field. People kept saying, “I really should have done this a long time ago, but I’m switching from Bank of America [or Chase, or Wells Fargo]. What bank do you use?” Local credit unions and community banks started staying open for extra hours to accommodate the rush of new customers. One morning in November, at my own credit union, I overheard a man explaining to the teller that he was considering becoming a member—but first he wanted to know if his money would be invested in mortgage-backed securities or credit default swaps.