Editorial: Fed up with big banks? Join a credit union

So long, Washington Mutual, also known as WaMu. Over the past few weeks the familiar yellow and blue WaMu signs adorning neighborhood financial centers around the region have been coming down as workers install the unfamiliar blue logo of JPMorgan Chase, known to most of its customers as simply Chase. The changeover marks the visible end of one of the nation’s oldest financial institutions, fondly remembered by many of us as The Friend of the Family.

For more than 100 years, Washington Mutual stood strong as the financial pillar of our region. Founded after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, it survived 11 tumultuous decades, including the Great Depression … only to meet its end last September in what some folks are calling the Great Recession. Like so many of the nation’s most well known financial institutions, Washington Mutual was run into the ground by executives whose greed outweighed any commitment they might have had to sound business principles.

Former CEO Kerry Killinger now famously declared in 2003 that he hoped “to do to this industry what Wal-Mart did to theirs, Starbucks did to theirs, Costco did to theirs and Lowe’s-Home Depot did to their industry. And I think if we’ve done our job, five years from now you’re not going to call us a bank.”

That statement is rich in irony, but the ambition it represents has made WaMu’s customers, shareholders, and employees poorer. Over the course of its history, WaMu safeguarded the savings of countless children, including mine. As Chase converts WaMu branches into Chase branches, the loss of our region’s most widely recognized financial institution is becoming more apparent.

WaMu used to be that one bank on the street corner that was local, the one bank that wasn’t based in New York or Charlotte or someplace far, far away. Now the WaMu that many of us knew and loved is disappearing. Its name has been forsaken and its branches are now appendages of the huge financial behemoth that is JPMorgan Chase.

More and more Washingtonians are asking ourselves this question: Why do business with a giant, faceless corporation? Why trust Chase with our money? Because Chase is big?

Too big to fail, right? That can’t be a good reason. If what we value out of our banking relationships is a focus on serving people, not profit, we’d all move our money over to credit unions. I switched over to a credit union a while before WaMu imploded and have never looked back. Like hundreds of thousands of other Washingtonians, I enjoy better rates, lower fees, and superior customer service. When I need help, I call a telephone number with a 206 area code and a real person answers the telephone.

Credit unions have no reason to be greedy. They’re member-owned and community oriented. Although many credit unions have narrow fields of membership, there are a number in Washington state that are open to all who live, work, attend school, or even worship here. These include Watermark Credit Union, Boeing Employees Credit Union (BECU), Group Health Credit Union, and Qualstar Credit Union, among others.

Credit unions have been working hard in recent years to improve convenience. Many credit unions belong to what’s known as the Shared Branching Network. The network allows credit union members to make deposits, withdraw funds, and obtain services at branches of thousands of other credit union branches nationwide. All that’s needed is the name of the financial institution, account number, and a valid photo ID.

With banks eyeing their most responsible customers as perfect targets for fee hikes in the wake of a new law to curb abusive lending practices, there’s never been a better time to join a credit union. To learn more about the credit union difference, check out findacreditunion.com. Don’t be afraid to go bankless. You’ll be glad you did.

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, a Redmond-based grassroots organization. Contact him at andrew@nwprogressive.org.