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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Angry Consumers

HARTFORD—Consumer protestors from several Connecticut cities came here recently to demonstrate against the giant rate increase by Northeast Utilities. They were angry enough to boycott the hearing before the Department of Public Utility Control (DPUC) on the proposed $242 million rate increase and announce their own “citizens’ hearing” in October.

Such protests are no longer unusual. With real family income growth falling behind inflation and with the Reagan administration jettisoning consumer protection law enforcement programs, the squeeze is on.

Many corporations see the Reaganites looking the other way and are preparing to make out like super bandits. They view the next four years as a period of “anything goes” for mergers, price increases and buying politicians to do their bidding.

Long range damage also is being done. Work for safety and health is being dropped or cut by com­panies which no longer feel the law on their track. General Motors, for example, dropped its crash protection engineering team soon after Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis declared he was not going to issue any lifesaving auto and traffic safety stan­dards during the next four years.

All these displays of contempt or indifference toward American consumers are telling these people, who pay all the bills in our economy that they have to look out for themselves because their government is not going to defend their interests.

But “looking out for themselves” will have to take dramatically new forms of negotiations between thousands or millions of united consumers and the companies or industries they want to behave better. Protests, demonstrations and even lawsuits are being overwhelmed by an onrushing, well-financed cor­porate power grab.

The citizens who demonstrated at Hartford belong to the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG)—the state’s most influential civic organization. CCAG has challenged Northeast Utilities before and with some modest, temporary success. But look at what has happened nonetheless. Last November, the company received a $124 million rate hike. This year it is demanding a rate level that will give this legal monopoly a 19 percent profit return on investment. Many companies in this country receive less than that by a considerable margin and they do not have the security of being a monopoly. Lesser groups than CCAG might become disheartened by these relentless corporate pressures for more and more of the con­sumer dollar.

The reality of the corporate challenge in the ’80s is that the consumers much decide to negotiate as an organized block against corporate excesses. Sample and savor these hypothetical future headlines:

  • Residential Telephone Users Group Gets AT&T To Drop Its Local Measured Service Policy

  • New York City Tenants Association Scores Big In Revisions Of Standard Landlord Lease.

  • Chevrolet Owners Force GM To Buy Back Defective Cars

  • Sears Agrees To Change Installment Loan Con­tracts In Negotiation With Customer Alliance

  • Electricity Consumer Consortium Obtains Cessation Of All Nuclear Power Construction By Nation’s Utilities

  • Policyholders Association Wins Demand For Regular Disclosure Of Insurance Company Com­parisons

  • Customers Of Supermarket Chain Secure Stocking Of More Nutritious Food

  • Motorist Group Obtains Ford Motor Co. Pledge To Install Air Bags Accompanied By Insurance Premium Reductions

  • Homeowners Organization Puts 10 Service Companies On Its “No Patronage” List

Direct head-to-head negotiations between buyers and sellers requires a dedication of time by con­sumers, a willingness to join together and a keen awareness that consumer justice pays off mightily in dollars saved and a higher quality of life.

There is another benefit as well. Consumer protection laws would be more adequately enforced when there are organized consumer with full-time staff spread throughout the land.

The crucial gap to overcome before consumers band together is the absence of a cheap communication system linking consumers in the various economic sectors like food, energy, housing or health. A recent Wisconsin law requires utilities to include several times in the billing envelope an invitation for con­sumers to join their own statewide group. The first two insertions—one in the electric bill and the other in the telephone bill—attracted 50,000 members to this Citizens Utility Board (CUB), a private research and action organization with a full time staff of advocates.

Similar CUB bills will be introduced in several state legislatures next year. If you are interested in lear­ning more about the CUB proposal and this new wave in consumer sovereignty, send a self-addressed, stamped business size envelope to CUB, PO Box 8003, Madison, Wisc., 53708.