By Elena Watts
For Reporting Texas
AUSTIN — Many Occupy Austin protesters also support Bank Transfer Day, a separate grassroots movement asking everyone frustrated with large banks’ practices to move their money to credit unions by Friday.
“Bank Transfer Day is a form of resistance — it will be one of many — to the abuse of power and corruption we’re seeing in our institutions,” said Kristian Caballero, a 25-year-old Austin paralegal involved with Occupy Austin.
University Federal Credit Union has seen an increase in new accounts at two branches and online this month, said Sheila Wojcik, vice president of membership. North Guadalupe and downtown locations met their quotas by mid-month, she said.
“So many were unhappy with their banks, and they just needed a catalyst to prompt action,” Wojcik said of Bank Transfer Day, which caught on as a movement on Facebook in early October.
October was a record-breaking month for Randolph Brooks Federal Credit Union, said Sonya McDonald, senior vice president of market development.
“We’ve seen an 82 percent increase in membership in the Austin region for October, when compared to membership numbers from the same time period last year,” McDonald said. “We’re on pace to beat our record for most accounts opened in a single month, opening more than 1,100 accounts online in the past month.”
Credit unions are not-for-profit financial cooperatives, so any money the institutions earn goes back to credit union members, Wojcik said. They generally offer lower fees and loan rates.
“If we have a successful year, our earnings are used to reward members in the form of lower-rate auto loans and programs like cash-back debit rewards,” Wojcik said. “We anticipate about $7 million back to our members this year for using their debit cards to make purchases.”
Wojcik said many of her customers at UFCU had voiced disappointment with their banks, but had dragged their heels moving their accounts because it took time and effort to cancel and re-establish automatic transfers. Increased fees, especially Bank of America’s proposed $5 charge for using debit cards, outraged and motivated consumers.
“Branch managers said increased new accounts are in response to Bank of America adding service fees to debit cards,” Wojcik said.
The outcry was so great that Bank of America on Tuesday dropped its debit-card fees. “We have listened to our customers very closely over the last few weeks and recognize their concern with our proposed debit usage fee,” said David Darnell, co-chief operating officer for Bank of America, in a statement. “Our customers’ voices are most important to us. As a result, we are not currently charging the fee and will not be moving forward with any additional plans to do so.”
The damage might have already been done, though. Caballero had been frustrated with her longtime bank, Wells Fargo, which had denied her loans after she couldn’t receive government college assistance.
“I’ve been a loyal customer. I have good credit — and they wouldn’t help me out in my time of need to continue my education,” she said. Then her bank began adding fees to services that had been free.
“They were penalizing me for spending my own money,” she said. “What is going on with these financial institutions that they think they can abuse their power and make a profit off people’s money by charging all these fees?”
Banks see the situation differently. “We understand Americans are demanding more from their financial institutions during these difficult economic times, and we are listening to what our customers are saying,” said Kathy Bolner, Wells Fargo’s Austin community banking president. “When a customer chooses to close an account, at any time or for any reason, we will help with that request while seeking to understand and address the customer’s concerns.”
Until recently, Caballero said she felt she didn’t have any banking options. “It just seemed everywhere you turned, everyone was trying to make a profit off your money,” she said. “You felt cornered, like there was no other option.”
Procrastination got the best of Caballero until she learned of Bank Transfer Day. Within the Occupy movement, she said, people started spreading the word about the advantages of banking with credit unions. She moved her money to Velocity Community Credit Union.
Bolner of Wells Fargo said her bank can provide customers and communities with support during tough times by working to keep people in their homes, lending to businesses that are trying to grow and providing jobs. But she said that banks can’t control what people do to make a political (and financial) statement, like Bank Transfer Day.
For Caballero, the Occupy movement has been about empowering people to recognize and voice injustices rather than remaining passive and compliant.
“We’re demanding accountability of the officials running and leveraging the system who are not serving the people the way they should be,” she said. “It’s really about principle on a broader scale.”