National grassroots campaign
The ruling could have forced millions of members to leave their credit unions. But one month after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, H.R. 1151 was introduced into the House on March 20, 1997.
It was at this point that the credit union representatives shifted their grassroots strategy into overdrive and employed the power of credit union members.
“We realized we needed to make lawmakers understand that this legislation would benefit consumers, but if it wasn’t passed it would hurt consumers,” says John McKechnie, who was then CUNA's vice president of legislative affairs. “That’s what provided us with the impetus to win.”
Buddy Gill was hired to be the principal strategist and architect behind the national campaign.
"The credit union campaign recast the message to Congress from “banks vs. credit unions to ‘what’s best for your district’s constituents’ by giving credit union members a stake in the outcome,” Gill writes in an essay, “How a Massive National Grassroots Campaign Beat the Well-Heeled Bank Lobby.”
Schaefer agreed with the strategy.
“We couldn’t win 'credit unions vs. banks,'” Schaefer says. “We changed the focus. Banks serve stockholders and credit unions serve members. It wasn’t a difficult decision to put our strongest asset—member-owners—at the heart of the campaign.”
The effort was called “The Credit Union Campaign for Consumer Choice.”
But another group—members of Congress—needed to be convinced they could support consumers and not be harmed politically by voting against the powerful bank lobby.
“Our objectives had a single purpose: How to best give our friends in Congress the political cover they needed to be with us and say ‘no’ to the banks when the hard votes came,” Gill writes.
Gill organized credit union voices throughout the country with TV and newspaper ads, media events, phone banks, and letter-writing campaigns that brought pressure from credit union members and credit-union friendly organizations to the steps of Congress.
Locally, AT&T Family solicited support from its member-owners. Lisa Warlick, a former marketing representative, worked on the campaign.
“We just put our heads down and worked,” says Warlick, who is now a campaign/digital analytics specialist at Truliant Federal. “We realized we had to get the laws changed. Since we had lost in the Supreme Court, there was no other way. If we hadn’t won, I can’t imagine what it would look like today—and I can’t imagine what would have happened to all those working-class people who depended on credit unions to help them with their financial dreams and goals. The banks, with their high rates and fees, simply weren’t a good answer for these workers."
People writing to their representatives in Congress was a big part of the Credit Union Campaign for Consumer Choice, Warlick notes.
“We did it the old fashioned way,” she says. “We parked ourselves in our branches and asked everyone who walked through the doors if they would sign a letter for their [representative].”
Registering people to vote also was critical to the campaign.
“We wanted to be able to say that everyone who wrote a letter was a registered voter. We didn’t want people writing a congressman and then not voting. It was said that Howard Coble, a Republican who represented North Carolina’s sixth congressional district, got so many letters through his mail slot, he couldn’t open his front door,” Warlick says.
The result: Congressional representatives received thousands of calls and letters from credit union members from all over the country—and 6,000 credit-union members rallied in Washington on July 14, 1998.
“If you get behind a good cause, it’s not hard to get support,” Warlick said. “Our members loved us and we loved our members. It was inspiring to be a part of this. AT&T Family chartered buses for staff and members. We left at 3 a.m. We marched in mid-morning. We were exuberant. It was a blast. Then we loaded back on the buses and came home.”
Gill says the reaction from congressional offices was overwhelming.
NEXT: A lopsided vote