Consumer Revolution

For many it was a scene to behold; for others it was a scene to bewail. But on that day, April 11th, amidst a tumultuous meeting of national meat boycott leaders in a large House of Representatives hearing room, the National Consumer Congress was born.

Outside of the meeting room, ranchers were telling housewives that rising meat prices were not their fault, while inside the room representatives of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen were circulating a pamphlet titled “Lady, Please Don’t Blame Your Butcher.” But the women who led this meat price uprising were more interested in listening to each other’s exhortations to orgainze than to the pleadings of other interest groups.

There was no doubt about the constituency of these representatives. Rose West, who led the housewife’s supermarket boycott in 1966, carried a stack of petitions with 300,000 names from the Denver area over to Betty Furness who chaired the meeting. They took all of two weeks to compile, she said. Anne Ackerman of Florida presented a two block long petition of 25,000 names demanding a rollback of meat prices. She declared that many years ago a woman sparked a revolution by saying “Let them eat cake;” today a woman (Virginia Knauer,consumer adviser to the President) is provoking a consumer revolution by saying, “Let them eat kidneys and brains!”

Infuriated by statements of government officials such as Under Secretary of Agriculture, J. Phil Campbell, who said in February that retail food prices were not too high because if they were the “housewife would back out of the marketplace and the cost would go down,” the participants demanded investigations. They wanted the agribusiness corporations, the commodities markets, food export deals and the Department of Agriculture probed. They also wanted local consumer protection agencies and continuing days of protest. But above all, they wanted a permanent organization.

Jan Alfaro of Logan, Utah, was elected provisional chairperson of the National Consumer Congress. The NCC is now faced with the challenge of how to translate the power to organize consumers locally around an immediate issue (meat prices) into a national force for consumer justice. It was clear that the participants at the boycott meeting were interested in a wide range of consumer issues–prices, quality and safety–and their corpo¬≠rate-governmental context. As doers, not just talkers, they desired an action organization in Washington to give a focused voice for their consumer interests in the councils of government.

Well they might. Congress, besieged by big farm, food processing, oil, bank and other lobbies, is moving toward approval of the same old authority for inflation control which the President has now. The lobbies have beaten back an attempt at more consumer-sensitive policies (including a price rollback) by the House Banking and Currency Committee. The Congress listens far more to immediate political muscle than to distant popular clamor.

The choice facing the fledgling NCC is whether to continue as a stinging tide which never quite makes the beachhead or to pioneer at local and national levels new and permanent roles for consumer advocates. Taking greater control over the consumer culture—in all its economic, political, health and environmental consequences–is a major arena in which women are asserting themselves. They interact with and are bilked by the marketplace with a greater frequency and intensity than men. A strong consumer force at the marketplace reverberates through the retailer, wholesaler, manufacturer or producer as well as into governmental forums. That process used to be called “consumer sovereignty,” but a more modern description would be “consumer democracy.” Jan Alfaro and her dynamic colleagues all over the country are working for deep roots; As one boycott organizer from New York told Congressman Ben Rosenthal, who helped coordinate the meeting, “This is one movement that ain’t gonna blow over.”

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