A historical marker located at the intersection of Mills and Spring streets near the center of the western Dane County community of Black Earth celebrates “the oldest cooperative in the nation.” Closely aligned with Wisconsin’s progressive heritage, the cooperative movement created an alternative to the profiteering of the robber barons who put their corporate bottom lines ahead of community and the common good — especially in the farm country and small towns of states like Wisconsin.
What was known as the Patrons Mercantile Co-op was organized by farmers from the town of Vermont during the great depression of the early 1890s. The model, adopted from cooperatives that had been organized in the north of England, was to create a jointly owned store that would supply farm families with the goods they needed at fair prices — and that would serve the community rather than the whims of a distant CEO.
The money to get started didn’t come from a bank. As the marker recalls, a pair of community activists, Amos Thorsrud and Nels Simley, “toured local farms to sell $10 shares in a company store, raising $1,800 capital to finance an inventory of farm supplies. A share of the profits would be returned to the patrons.”
Even as times changed and the Patrons’ Mercantile Co-op merged with the nearby Mount Horeb Farmers Co-op, we are reminded, “The Co-op's purpose has always prevailed: ‘Ownership by the patrons and affordable products.’”
That’s a basic premise of the cooperative movement, and of the alternative to corporate banking that it helped to spawn: the credit union movement. Historically operated as not-for-profit, member-owned financial cooperatives, credit unions now serve more than 130 million members in the United States, providing affordable and responsible financial services to almost a third of all Americans.
The cooperative and credit union movements were a good fit with the ideals and values of the progressive movement led by former Wisconsin Gov. and Sen. Robert M. La Follette — and with the Wisconsin Idea that was promoted by La Follette and his allies on the UW-Madison campus. So it should come as no surprise that the Credit Union National Association, or CUNA — the national association that advocates for all of America's credit unions — has long been headquartered in Madison. And that Madison is also the home of the World Council of Credit Unions, the National Credit Union Foundation and the CUNA Mutual Group.
These organizations have deep roots in Madison, and CUNA Mutual Group, the insurance company that provides financial services for cooperatives, credit unions and their members, has long been one of Madison’s largest private-sector employers. Through much of its history, CUNA Mutual has been a generous and well-regarded contributor to civic life. That’s one of the reasons why some folks may be wrestling with the question of how to respond to the week-long strike by CUNA Mutual workers, which began last Friday when 450 members of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 39 joined local picket lines.
For the people of Madison and Dane County, however, this is not a close call. The union is striking for all the right reasons.
The strike comes after more than a year of negotiations between the union and the company. The two sides are at odds over issues that often come up in contract negotiations: health insurance, pensions and wages. There’s also been wrangling over the extent to which CUNA Mutual workers can do their jobs remotely. And the union has complained about the company engaging in unfair labor practices following the firing of its chief steward at CUNA Mutual, Joe Evica
But the issue that should get the attention of Madisonians of all political and ideological inclinations is that of outsourcing.
CUNA Mutual, which is busy rebranding itself as TruStage, has in recent years taken on more and more of the trappings of a major corporation. And major corporations have a tendency to engage in outsourcing of work from facilities that are unionized, and from communities where they have traditionally been headquartered.
That’s precisely what has been happening with CUNA Mutual Group, or CMG.
“CMG has a twenty-year history of outsourcing, transferring, and contracting out bargaining unit work,” explains OPEIU Local 39, which has represented CUNA Mutual workers since the 1940s. “Since 2002, CMG has outsourced, transferred, and contracted over 1,200 union jobs. That is 1,200 less jobs in the city of Madison and the surrounding area. As a large private-sector employer in Madison, CMG has walked away from its commitment to the city and the community by eliminating jobs, putting to question whether CMG is a premier employer and is committed to the community by way of good sustaining jobs, with good wages and benefits.”
Evica, the chief union steward for the bargaining unit at CUNA Mutual, makes a vital point when he says: “Wages and benefits are very important to our members but none of these things matter if our members don’t have jobs. Our members have shown their unwavering commitment to CMG which has made the employer very profitable, year over year. It is long past due that the employer returns that commitment to our members with long-term job security, maintaining the current healthcare and pension, and wages that adjust for inflation.”
This strike is about keeping good jobs in Madison and Dane County, and about respecting the workers who have made CUNA Mutual such a vital part of this community. The workers are not just fighting for themselves. They’re fighting for Madison values, and for Madison’s future.