On December 19, several members of the Auto Club of New York will show up for their annual meeting to ask questions which the club’s entrenched management would prefer not to hear. At last year’s meeting, a member’s questions about how the club was run were brushed off. Other members are trying to find out more about an insurance agency which several directors and top executives of this non-profit club run on the side that sells auto insurance to club members.
Similar experiences by members of other auto clubs around the country have only intensified a mounting challenge to the autocracy, policies and practices of the self-perpetuating managers and directors of these AAA-affiliated clubs. These challenges are becoming more organized and are finding their way into the courts.
The stakes for the public interest are large. What these 235 motor clubs do and do not do with the dues of 15 million members is of great consequence to auto and highway safety, air pollution, mass transit, insurance reform and other consumer services such as travel, restaurants and motels. Most AAA club members are not aware that their clubs can do much more for them than an occasional tow, maps and triptiks.
With few exceptions, however, motor club managements are part of the highway lobby whose officials frequently interlock through club directorships. These club managers and directors are more interested in selling auto insurance and pursuing allied business interests than pushing for such objectives as safer cars and lower repair costs. Indeed, the national AAA bureaucrats in Washington closely collaborate with oil, auto, tire, cement and asphalt interests (collectively known as the “road gang”) and criticize or oppose consumer and environmental groups. It took a personal appeal by Senator Warren Magnuson (D., Wash.) in 1966 for the AAA reluctantly to come out in support of the autosafety law. Since then they have done nothing but obstruct or ridicule its application. Although bloated with riches, the national American Automobile Association has had no technical staff to monitor the federal agencies so that they issue and enforce strong pollution and auto safety standards. The one person they recently hired to work on the auto safety agency is working to defeat the promising air bag system which even General Motors President Ed Cole favors.] Ridden with secrecy about their operations and expenditures, the clique that controls the national AAA is more reactionary and autocratic than General Motors.
Here are some examples of how some large AAA-affiliated motor clubs behave. In the early Sixties, the Auto Club of New York discovered that its car fleet was equipped with unsafe tires. The tire company replaced the tires, privately admitting their unsafe design. But the New York club refused to warn its own members about this hazardous tire brand in its newsletter.
Two giant California AAA clubs led the fight in 1970 against a proposed state constitutional amendment which would have allowed the use of a small percentage of gasoline taxes for air pollution and mass transit development. Of the $330,000 provided by the highway lobby to successfully overwhelm the proposal through a deceptive billboard and media campaign, $45,000 came from the two motor clubs and their insurance companies. Embattled citizens and bipartisan community leaders favoring the proposal had less than $25,000 with which to inform the voters.
A group of Southern California members, outraged over the club’s use of their money, decided to wage a proxy challenge at the next election of club directors. The club spent about $100,000 of its members’ money on three full-time employees and 1.6 million mail pieces to obtain management proxies. But the challengers were refused access to the membership list until a Los Angeles court ordered the club to make it available.
Likewise, the Auto Club of Michigan refused to permit a reform group the right to see membership lists to solicit support for reform candidates for directors. The club, after being taken to court, loosened its bylaws. Now anyone who wants to nominate a director must get 5,000 signatures — anyone that is, except the incumbent directors who need only 15 signatures.In Chicago, members interested in more democratic procedures asked to see their own club’s bylaws and other documents to determine their rights as members. Club officials retained the politically powerful and expensive Chicago law firm of Kirkland, Ellis to block in court this elementary right of members.
The winds of change are blowing, however, not only from membership challenges but from the example of the expanding Missouri Auto Club which provides diagnostic services for members’ vehicles and engages in various progressive consumer practices.
If more members organized to demand information, attend annual meetings and systematically push for judicial and legislative reform, motor clubs would more likely become active in furthering auto safety, pollution control, mass transit and integrity in the auto repair and insurance services.