TODAY is International Credit Union Day. Jamaican credit unions started in 1941 with the Young Men's Sodality of the Holy Trinity (Roman Catholic) Cathedral. However, Sodality was the second credit union to be registered, with Kingston Clerks Credit Union being the first. The Sodality Credit Union members organised other credit unions at other Roman Catholic churches and formed the Jamaica Co-operative Credit Union League in 1942. The Credit Union League was instrumental in getting the Jamaica Fisherman's Co-operative Union off the ground.
All co-operatives, whether financial (credit unions) or service, came about because of hard times. In 1941 in Jamaica, black people could not get loans in banks and had to rely on loan sharks who wanted 75 per cent interest.
At that time, the descendants of the planter class were for the most part still in Jamaica and wanted to keep the masses in a state as close as possible to slavery. The Young Men's Sodality of Holy Trinity Cathedral prayed for a solution as they meditated on the Bible and certain social encyclicals of the popes.
And they came up with the idea of credit unions. Their American moderator Father John Peter Sullivan guided them along this path as he told them of credit unions that the Catholic Church had in the United States of America and Canada. And those, in a nutshell, are the circumstances in which the credit union movement was born in Jamaica.
In the early days of credit unions, applicants had to be trained for six months at St George's College Extension School before becoming members. During that time they were taught business principles, thrift and the need for a properly developed conscience in paying their loan debts so that others could benefit.
In 1950 the Co-operative Act was enacted to govern both credit unions and all other co-operatives such as the Jamaica Welfare Co-operatives, the Jamaica Agricultural Society Co-operatives and the Fishermen's Co-operatives. Although credit unions have done a lot to empower people in Jamaica, much more could have been done. A lack of unity in Jamaica, because of the way in which families are structured, and the fact that beginning around the 1960s a new generation of credit unionists have been elected directors, who did not have the vision of the early pioneers, are the reasons more has not been done.
Where are the co-operative businesses financed by credit unions? Why is it that co-operatives, after more than 70 years of existence, do not control the commanding heights of the economy through tourism, agriculture, manufacturing and whatever else?
On Monday we observed National Heroes Day. It was actually the vision of at least two of our national heroes, Marcus Garvey and Norman Washington Manley, that the poor of Jamaica should be empowered through co-operative ventures instead of constantly eking out a living from their meagre wages.
The best way, as I see it, is through the co-operative movement. But first, Jamaicans will need to learn to work together. The National Union of Co-operative Societies and the Credit Union League should organise programmes that teach people across Jamaica how to empower themselves through co-operatives.
But even if the governing groups of the co-operative movement do not, there is nothing to stop others from educating Jamaicans about the true potentials of co-operatives in general and credit unions in particular. I am willing to teach co-operative principles one or two hours per week if I am remunerated by a collection taken up before or after each class.
Some credit unions sponsor football teams. There are also staff football teams which play in the various competitions available. Can football be used as a way of teaching teamwork to credit unionists? We could use the existing football teams of people over the age of 16 to explain co-operative principles. Let them form co-operative businesses while joining the various credit unions. Let them understand the importance of the general meetings, and at the meetings they should vote that some of the surplus be used to finance such ventures.
Unity is one thing that is needed, but there also needs to be a belief that it can be done. Too many of us are still in mental slavery where we believe that the planter class, which in a real way no longer exists, should do big projects. Or at least the mercantile class should do them. How many of us are willing to give voluntary service in getting people to join credit unions or service co-operatives? Can I find even five volunteers to help me to organise members to understand credit union democracy?
Once again the nation is going through hard times as we have not received any loan from the International Monetary Fund, for we have not yet worked out the conditionalities of the next loan from the fund. This is the time for the co-operative movement, especially the credit union movement, to act.