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North American Style

United States

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CONSUMER POWER [image, unknown] Background to Ralph Nader

Consumer power: North American style
North America has the most free-wheeling economy in the world. Current tactics curbing
corporate power in the market-place owe a lot to Ralph Nader’s work. Montreal – based
Peter Mac Farland
interviews Nader, profiles the action he’s inspired and reports on
the more discreet methods of the Consumers’ Association of Canada.

Ralph Nader: Consumer crusader The US Senate Committee hearings on automobile safety were unfolding, with company lawyers in pin-striped suits delivering elegant apologies for the annual carnage on America’s highways; on the other side, a rag-tag assortment of inventors pushed their elaborate and generally unworkable schemes on the yawning Senators. To most observers, it seemed the hearings would result in a final government shrug and another auto-industry victory over a lunatic fringe demanding safety as well as chrome and bright colours for their family car.

But then a slender figure in a rumpled suit stood to address the committee. By the time he had finished his exhaustively detailed testimony on the serious design flaws in American cars - and outlined simple and inexpensive measures like seat belts, padded dash boards, and shatter’ proof windshields, that could improve them - he had laid the groundwork for a new American automobile safety law and added another dimension to the consumer movement.

That was in February. 1966, and the man in the rumpled suit was Ralph Nader. Two decades later he not only remains the leading consumer advocate in North America but is preparing for a new assault on corporate ramparts. ‘The consumer movement is going to move away from mere law enforcement’ he promises, ‘and into direct economic challenge to conventional business.’

And because it is Ralph Nader speaking, people listen. Mr Nader. who regularly appears on the Most Admired Men in America list has built his reputation on twenty years of remarkable achievements in consumer protection following from his auto-safety campaign in the 1960s, which resulted in improvements that continue to save an estimated 10,000 lives a year. He has successfully campaigned for everything from a new meat inspection law to a new mine act. He can also take credit for the creation of the Consumers Protection Agency, for the passage of the landmark Freedom of Information Act, and for launching numerous full-time and volunteer consumer organizations around the country.

Mr Nader’s ‘new phase’ in the battle is an attempt to lead the consumer movement directly into the market place itself. In the past he and his allies have used Congress, the courts, and deft media management to put the rights of Everyperson on the national agenda. The new wave will have consumers banding together to take the price-setting initiative away from the producers.

One such project is Buyers Up, run by Mr Nader’s Public Citizen Inc. in Washington. This group, which acts as a sort of unofficial consumers union, negotiates home heating fuel prices directly with suppliers. So far. Buyers Up has succeeded in knocking 26 cents off a gallon of oil for its individual members, saving each up to $250 a year. But Ralph Nader sees Buyers Up as merely a prototype for the future when buyers groups will be negotiating with producers in a wide variety of industries.

‘More and more people are going to band together to buy products like heating oil, insurance, legal services and food. I think we’re going to see the home computer making it economically feasible to keep all records of group members together with a tiny staff. The idea can squeeze waste and inefficiency out of the economy and raise the standard of living of the average household.’

To complement the buyers’ groups, Nader-led organizations have also been building a nation-wide network of Consumers Utility Boards. These member-funded organizations hire lawyers to fight telephone and power company rate increases and act as unofficial ombuds-persons in battles between their members and the monopolies. In four states the boards have won the unprecedented legal right to have their publicity included inside the utility company mailings. In Wisconsin, for example, the local board tucked the eye’ catching message ‘ARE YOU MAD AS US ABOUT HIGH UTILITY BILLS?’ inside the company’s monthly bill and immediately signed up 27,000 members. That was five years ago. Since then, their membership has quadrupled, and the Wisconsin Consumers Board has succeeded in blocking numerous telephone and power company rate increases.

As with the buying groups, Nader sees the Consumers Utility Board model as applicable to insurance, banking and warranties, in bringing a measure of balance to the economy. He even looks forward to the day when the CUB model will be used to bring consumer control to the electronic media, with television viewers organizing to demand minimum standards of taste and quality from the powerful and largely unregulated industry.

A passive receptacle

This new phase of Naderism is deeply rooted in his consumer philosophy. Unlike theorists in the past who have seen the consumer as a kind of passive receptacle at the end of the production process, Ralph Nader puts the consumer front and centre in his economic universe.

‘In the history of economic thought, from Ricardo on the right to Marx on the left, the emphasis has been exclusively on investment. capital, and labour - the producing end. We are trying to get back to the roots of the process which should begin with the consumer, and with the consumer’s needs.’

For Nader, producers offering inefficient, unsafe or just plain useless goods in the marketplace must be held accountable by organized consumer groups. When the consumer finally begins to exercise the

‘virtually untapped power of citizen action’, the age-old maxim of the marketplace, Buyer Beware, will be transformed into its opposite - Producer Beware. Consumers will take their logical place at the head of the economic process.

One place where Ralph Nader’s crusades have already had a marked benefit is in Canada. On countless occasions, from auto-safety to drug testing, Nader-inspired legislation in the United States has resulted in public pressure for similar legislation in Canada. Most recently the government was forced to pass an Access to Information Act based on the popular

American model and American safety standards in the asbestos industry were reluctantly matched in Canadian mines and mills.

Different in Canada

Andrew Cohen, director of the Consumers’ Association of Canada, admits that Naderism has had a major influence on his organization. But he does have some reservations about how many of Nader’s methods can be successfully imported into countries like Canada, with different political systems.

‘In Canada,’ he says, ‘we have to use different tactics. We don’t have the same kind of independent Congressional committees, or the same kind of legal tradition as the Americans. Down there everybody sues everybody else; that’s how it’s done. In Canada we have to find other methods.’

Those other methods have been a sort of ‘quiet crusading’, with frequent meetings with government and corporate leaders to make sure that the consumer’s point of view is on the agenda. The Association’s most powerful tool is the political and economic clout of their 160,000 members, who are kept informed by the Association’s monthly magazine.

The approach has won the Association numerous pitched battles - for cheaper drugs, lower telephone rates and mandatory smoke alarms - but more importantly it has won the consumer gradual recognition as at least a junior partner in the economy. Last Spring, for example, the Consumers Association was invited for the first time to represent the consumers’ interests at the government, business, and labour economic summit in Ottawa.

In the United States, however, it seems that Ralph Nader’s ‘brash crusading’ is the method that gets results. Even in the face of the so-called Reagan revolution. After almost five years in office, the government Ralph Nader describes as ‘of General Motors, by Exxon. and for Du Pont’ has been unable to knock any of the legion of Nader-inspired consumer laws off the books.

‘Even though he has destroyed the enforcement end of things, we haven’t let him get near the statutory end. The Reagan revolution is reversible as soon as he gets out of office.’

In the meantime, American consumer power continues to battle on new fronts. And Ralph Nader, slightly stooped and with graying temples after two decades of crusading is still in there fighting.

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New Internationalist issue 147 magazine cover This article is from the May 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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