“The real measure of Ralph’s success will be how many oak trees are planted.” — Claire Nader
It is a frequent complaint among Nader’s critics that he is “spreading himself too thin” by founding so many advocacy groups and becoming involved in so many different issues. Yet that is precisely the measure by which Nader gauges his success: How many more people are becoming active citizens? How many new industries can be subjected to consumer-side pressure? How many government bodies can receive more probing public scrutiny? “I like to think of myself as a Johnny Appleseed, getting consumer groups started and letting them grow on their own,” Nader has explained. One of the most important roles that Nader has fashioned for himself is as a catalyst, helping others to create their own citizen organizations. Funding and organizational structures have varied from one group to another, as might be expected, but they all share a commitment to citizen action in making government and business more accountable.
Part of the challenge that Nader and his early associates faced was inventing organizational models for citizen action that could be both financially viable and politically effective. In most cases, Nader provided critical seed money, organizers and his personal endorsement to new groups, and many went on to thrive as independent enterprises. (Appendix 1 provides a complete list of organizations that Nader has founded over the past twenty-five years.) Some of these fledgling advocacy groups would later close their doors, unable to develop a stable and sufficient funding base on their own. Apart from this common difficulty, many new groups also found it difficult to locate tenacious, creative leadership that could thrive in the arduous working circumstances of public-interest advocacy.
A question very much on Nader’s mind in the early 1970s as he toured dozens of college campuses was how to devise a hardy, replicable model of citizen action. His appearances typically inspired huge turnouts and sometimes led to the formation of ad hoc groups of student activists. If the would-be Nader’s Raiders had the enthusiasm, however, they often lacked the citizen action skills and access to standing institutional resources (professional staff, funding, administration, etc.). The person who would help Nader bridge the gap between aspiration and achievement turned out to be Donald K. Ross, the student body president of Fordham University in 1965.
After taking the New York bar exams in the summer of 1970, Ross journeyed down to Washington to join the first Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG. The dozen-odd members of this elite corps of Nader activists had each selected specific issues to work on. Having arrived late, Ross was assigned an issue that no one else had yet selected and that he, fortuitously, knew a great deal about: the dynamics of student activism. In collaboration with Nader, Ross and another PIRG staffer, Jim Welch, set out to develop an effective, enduring model for student activism.
Any model would have to take account of that perennial problem of student activism — final exams, semester breaks, and summer vacation — as well as deal with the constant turnover of membership as graduating seniors moved on. In time, Ross learned about the origins of the great English universities in Oxford and Cambridge: students literally hired their professors to teach them what they wanted to know. “Why not extend the metaphor to citizen action,” Nader and Ross reasoned, “and hire ‘coaches’ to teach activist skills?”
The idea would inspire the organizational structure of the campus-based Public Interest Research Groups (as distinct from Nader’s Washington-based PIRG). Each local PIRG would be financed and run by students, but guided by a professional staff of attorneys, scientists, organizers and others. Funding would come from modest annual fees of $2 to $5 automatically billed to all students on campuses that had approved the PIRG by a majority vote. Students who did not want to pay the fee could so indicate on their college registration form or tuition bill — the so-called negative check-off system.
Ross and Welch spent weeks on the road trying to organize campus activists along these lines. But it was not until a 1970 Nader appearance at the University of Oregon in Eugene that the new model of student activism took root, providing a successful example for other campuses to emulate. More than 500 students showed up for an organizational meeting following Nader’s speech, providing unstoppable momentum for the founding of the first PIRG. Soon all seven schools in the state college system approved the establishment of the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG). Then the idea took hold in Minnesota, where 60 percent of the student body of 42,000 signed petitions within two weeks urging the creation of a PIRG. To help other campuses replicate the budding PIRG model, Ross wrote Action for a Change (1971), a how-to book that would become a widely read manifesto for student activism and a blueprint for founding new PIRGS.
Some PIRG projects have been distinctly local in nature while others confront problems that are national in scope. One of the first projects undertaken by OSPIRG, for example, investigated fraud in auto repair shops, which led to prosecutions by the local district attorney. Vermont PIRG (VPIRG) studied the poor dental health of some 35,000 children in the low-income families, which prompted the state legislature to create a special program to provide dental services to low-income families. As Kelley Griffin recounts in her history of the PIRGs, More Action for a Change (1987), the PIRGs have tackled such issues as water pollution, threats to worker health and safety, unjustified utility rate hikes and mandatory bottle recycling legislation, among dozens of other issues.
Nationwide, there are now PIRGs in more than twenty states, each wholly autonomous in its operation, yet sharing similar agendas and organizational principles. Among the most active PIRGs are those in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Colorado, Florida and California. The largest is NYPIRG, a monument to the organizing and leadership talents of Donald Ross, NYPIRG executive director from 1973 to 1982. With twenty-six offices, twenty campus chapters, seventy-six full-time professional staff and an annual budget of $2.5 million (1987), NYPIRG is probably the most significant activist group in the State of New York. It has played a critical role in such diverse issues as the quality of subway service in New York City, truth-in-testing disclosure legislation, toxic wastes, banking services, and property tax assessments.
One innovation, pioneered by NYPIRG, that has been adopted by many other PIRGs is the use of door-to-door canvassing as a means to raise money, educate the public and organize grassroots support. The canvass has allowed the PIRGS to reach out to the local community as well as to students. With both student and citizen members, the PIRGs nationwide enjoy the support of more than one million people.
By 1983, the state PIRGs had become so collectively strong and numerous that they banded together and created a national lobbying office, U.S. PIRG, which lobbies Congress on key environmental and consumer issues. Unlike a great many national citizen groups that have local chapters, U.S. PIRG is truly a creation of the grassroots seeking to project a national presence; it is not a “top-down” organizing effort emanating from a Washington headquarters. This structure, notes Donald Ross, “gives U.S. PIRG its unique strength. When the grassroots base decides to do something, it has the full support of everyone.”
With help from U.S. PIRG and a national center called PIRG Toxics Action, the state PIRGs have focussed much of their energy in recent years on environmental issues, achieving impressive results in several states. After MASSPIRG got a toxics initiative on the ballot in 1986, Massachusetts voters approved, by the largest margin of any initiative in that state’s history, the strongest clean-up provisions in the nation. A similar toxic waste law has been enacted in Washington State, and the threat by PIRGs to wage initiative drives has convinced legislators and chemical industry representatives in Massachusetts and Oregon to sit down and negotiate the first toxic use reduction laws in the nation. Gene Karpinski, director of U.S. PIRG, cites the PIRGs’ toxics use reduction campaign as “a creative use of the voter initiative as a leveraging tool.”
Drawing upon its large grassroots constituency while using its lobbying sophistication in Washington, D.C., U.S. PIRG has opened up new battlefronts on a number of issues. To help curb abuses by credit bureaus, the group documented in 1990 the failures of the existing Fair Credit Reporting Act and is now leading the effort for a more stringent version of the law. As a key player in the renewal of the Clean Air Act in 1990, U.S. PIRG helped soften the opposition by documenting General Motors’ massive expenditures throughout the 1980s to block clean air legislation and DuPont’s pitched resistance over 15 years to any regulation of CFCs, an ozone-destroying chemical, and they played a critical role in organizing grassroots support.
Beyond their substantive achievements in lobbying, litigation and investigative reports, the PIRGs have had a profound if intangible impact in teaching students the real-world meaning of citizenship. They have helped recruit students to the tradition of citizen action and taught specific citizenship skills that are used by tens of thousands of students throughout their lives. “We’ll never know how many young people overcame their fears of looking at government and went on to do something later,” Donald Ross observed. “But in many ways, this has been the PIRGs’ greatest legacy.”
While there have been many student movements over the past several decades, few have endured. They simply have not had the leadership or vision to create institutions that could perpetuate their ideals. The PIRGs, however, like the consumer movement itself, have taken a long-term perspective and built strong yet flexible institutions for ongoing citizen action. It is one reason why the PIRGs continue to engage the imagination of each new generation of students.
The International Consumer Movement
The preceding chapters have shown the expansive tendencies of the consumer movement, as core principles of democracy, accountability and empowerment are spread to one issue area after another. One of the richest expressions of this tendency can be found in the international consumer movement. Dozens of nations now have flourishing consumer movements that draw upon the knowledge and tactics of other nations’ activists, particularly those of the American consumer movement.
Throughout the past two decades, Nader has been both an inspirational presence and strategic advisor to many fledgling consumer movements abroad. While he has not concentrated on international issues, he has fostered their development through his personal travels and assorted projects.
In 1970, for example, Nader and Joan Claybrook visited Japan and discovered that Japanese auto companies had two separate production lines for otherwise identical cars. The first line produced cars that met 30 U.S. safety standards; the second line produced cars only for the Japanese market and met just a few of the U.S. standards. Similarly, the Japanese cars that were recalled in the United States for safety defects were not recalled in Japan. As Claybrook recalls, “outraged about this, we [Nader and Claybrook] wrote a letter to the prime minister and held a press conference in Tokyo. The Japanese government was very embarrassed. The auto companies immediately agreed to voluntarily comply with U.S. requirements in Japan. It was a good lesson on the importance of international cooperation — and the pressure that can be exerted on domestic manufacturers through the news media.”
On another occasion in the early 1970s, Nader joined with a parents’ group at a press conference to denounce the Distillers Company, the firm that had resisted for ten years setting up adequate trusts for the 370 grotesquely deformed children of the drug thalidomide, which a Distillers’ subsidiary had sold. By arousing public and press sentiment, Nader eventually prodded Distillers to establish a $44 million fund for the victims.
In 1986, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Great Britain’s notorious Official Secrets Act, Nader appeared in London to criticize the law and toured England to help activists press for an American-style Freedom of Information Act. Already, a London-based advocacy group, the Campaign for Freedom of Information, had used the U.S. FOIA to force a change in British pesticide laws, which were adopted through secret “gentleman’s agreements” between the government and chemical manufacturers. By obtaining safety data on U.S. pesticides used in Britain, the group was able to convince lawmakers of the dangers posed by the substances and force new disclosures of pesticide safety data to the public.
American consumer advocates have lent legal and moral support to their European counterparts on other occasions as well. In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Soviet Union (whose radioactive fall-out affected European nations) and the devastating Rhine River chemical spill in 1986, a proposal was made to the twelve-nation European Economic Community (EEC) to adopt some sort of freedom of information law. Attorney Patti Goldman, the former director of the Nader-founded Freedom of Information Clearinghouse (and now an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group) was enlisted by the proposal’s backers to help draft the new law and guide EEC deliberations on the new law. While the proposed law requires unanimous approval by EEC nations and faces considerable opposition by Great Britain and Germany, it has become a rallying point for activists and may, in time, provide a new fulcrum for citizens to hold their governments more accountable.
As early as September 1973, Nader, in a presentation with Mark J. Green to the United Nations, proposed a series of new mechanisms of accountability for multinational corporations. At the U.N. inquiry, instigated after charges that ITT and Kennecott Copper Corporation had tried to subvert the government of Dr. Salvador Allende in Chile, Nader and Green said:
The trouble with multinational corporations, in a word, is accountability. Business is worldwide; government or law is not. Consequently, worldcorps are free of effective control. And lacking accountability, they lack legitimacy. For a government or a worldcorp to have legitimacy, it must be responsible to people and institutions outside of itself and must be supported by an informed labor and consumer constituency which is so intimately affected. Multinational firms are free of such restraints. To whom are they responsible? To those who govern them. Who are they? A self-perpetuating oligarchy. As Harvard Dean E.S. Mason answered a decade ago, “They selected themselves.”
By 1980, the increasingly globalization of commerce and its abuses prompted Nader to found the Multinational Monitor, a monthly magazine published by one of his groups, Essential Information. The Multinational Monitor has been a singular source of investigative reporting about international corporate behavior from the citizen-consumer-worker perspective. In creating the magazine, Nader hoped to provide a new information resource that could catch up with the rapid changes being wrought by multinational corporations (MNCs). “Large corporations operating in the international arena bring different contexts to the historic questions of control, secrecy and immunity from deterrence or sanction,” Nader wrote in 1980. “The fast-paced dynamic of these ever-expanding global corporations, with their expedient exploitation of political tides and their vast deployment of chemical, nuclear, drug and other technologies over people and nature, are leaving public awareness further and further behind.”
Throughout the 1980s, Monitor articles and interviews have explained how MNCs have transformed self-sufficient agricultural economies into export-oriented, dependent economies; rapaciously exploited natural resources with little regard for the environment or local communities; destroyed indigenous cultures in the process of development; suppressed workers’ rights and civil liberties; used economic blackmail to interfere with the democratic sovereignty of nations; and knowingly sold hazardous products that cause injury, illness and death. Publication of the Multinational Monitor has paralleled the growth of the international consumer movement in the 1980s, as activists in dozens of countries have risen up to fight the abuses of international capital. Especially in economically vulnerable Third World nations, multinational corporations have been all too ready to exploit the lack of environmental protections, workplace health and safety protections, uninformed consumers and governments’ general lack of scientific expertise and stringent laws and regulations.
Abuses like these often occur because individuals in less developed countries lack information. People do not know who owns the local factory or under what agreements the factory operates, for example. They may not realize how dangerous workplace chemicals and technologies are, or what legal responsibilities a company has toward the community and workers. Foreign activists who try to investigate these issues frequently spend a lot of time and money chasing down information, not always with success.
To help remedy this situation, encourage local self-reliance and stimulate reform, Essential Information founded the Multinationals & Development Clearinghouse. The Clearinghouse helps activists in less developed nations answer basic questions like: Does a given company produce dangerous materials? Have they polluted before? Do they operate in pariah states such as South Africa? Do they circumvent foreign exchange controls? By helping global activists exchange information, the Clearinghouse has, for example, helped a Johannesburg journalist document that a Dow Chemical subsidiary was exporting to South Africa a hazardous pesticide banned in the U.S. In another typical example, the Clearinghouse helped Japanese activists obtain records about accidents at Japanese nuclear power plants — records that were unavailable to the public in Japan but which were on file at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency and available under the Freedom of Information Act.
The preeminent institutional leader of the global consumer movement is the IOCU, the International Organization of Consumers Unions, a federation of groups founded in 1960. The IOCU helps 170 large and small consumer groups in some 50 countries fight the abuses of MNCs, particularly dangerous pesticides, unsafe pharmaceuticals and the irresponsible marketing of infant formula. Its early members were from the United States, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, but in the early 1970s, many Asian organizations began to join. To supplement the work of its main offices in The Hague, regional IOCU offices were opened in Penang, Malaysia in 1974 and Montevideo, Uruguay in 1986.
An obvious question is whether the consumer movement in industrialized nations holds relevant political lessons for consumers in less developed nations and the Third World. Can American activists who deal more with how to consume intelligently have much to say to Third World peasants who barely consume? Can consumer tactics that succeed in a constitutional democracy succeed in nations with radically different systems of law, politics and government?
Despite inevitable ideological, economic and cultural differences, it turns out that international consumers share a great deal of common ground. The survey of unsafe drinking water conducted by the Consumer Protection Society of Bangladesh could have been done by a PIRG. In Papan, Malaysia, a coalition of environmentalists, fishermen and tapioca workers fought a Mitsubishi Chemicals radioactive waste dump using tactics quite familiar to American consumer activists — petitions, sit-ins, lobbying and publicity.
Although these tactics are relatively new in the Third World, they have many distinct advantages. Anwar Fazal, the IOCU President from 1978 to 1984 who did much to extend the consumer movement to the Third World, explains the value of the consumer movement’s nonpartisan approach: “In places where political dissent is not tolerated, groups that provide a common theme that affects everyone can become a very powerful force. Governments can deal with sectarian party politics by saying, ‘These people are saying it because they oppose us and they are trying to score political points.’ But the consumer movement, dealing with gut, concrete issues, can build campaigns in a way that many other movements can not. It’s a power that can frighten governments because it can draw so much interest. Since these issues are real to people and are understood by people, the government has to deal with them.”
The political diversity that is represented by the international consumer movement is more of a strength than a liability, because it allows the movement to cast a broad net without running afoul of sectarian dogmas. The international consumer movement has no detailed ideological agenda and does not aspire to set forth a comprehensive social blueprint. It focuses on particular issues, invoking principles to legitimize its campaigns, not to impose ideological purity.
One of the most important activities undertaken by member organizations of IOCU has been the formation of information-exchange networks. The first, Babyfood Action Network, was formed in 1979 to combat Nestle’s aggressive marketing of baby formula in the Third World even though polluted water and unsanitary conditions in those countries make breast milk a far superior and safer form of baby nutrition. The sharing of information helps mobilize an international consumer response to Nestle’s irresponsible practices.
To curb the similar marketing abuses by international pharmaceutical companies, IOCU members formed the Health Action International (HAI) network in 1981 to promote rational policies for the marketing of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Plagued by limited resources, many non-western nations are ripe targets for the marketing of dangerous drugs by drug multinationals, which reap extraordinary profits from the sale of ineffective and unsafe drugs, many of which have been banned in the United States and other western industrialized countries, to unwitting, often-impoverished consumers. The HAI project monitors the export of drugs that are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and notifies interested parties in importing countries so they can alert the public and watch for the re-export of the drug to other nations.
IOCU members have formed a similar clearinghouse, the Pesticide Action Network (PAN), to curb the sale and unethical marketing of dangerous pesticides in international markets. “As pesticides move from manufacture to end use,” writes David Weir, coauthor of Circle of Poison: Pesticides and People in a Hungry World, “they cause a toll of poisonings conservatively estimated at 750,000 people per year globally, including conservatively, 14,000 fatalities.” The PAN project has advocated more effective national and international pesticide controls and promoted alternatives to pesticide-dependent agriculture. One measure of the network’s effectiveness is its success in getting the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization to adopt, in 1985, an International Code of Conduct on the Distribution and Use of Pesticides. The Code outlines responsibilities of manufacturers, distributors and governments for packaging, labeling and advertising. Still, enforcing the provisions of the Code and educating people about pesticide hazards remains a formidable challenge.
IOCU members have yet another information network to curb the dumping of hazardous products, technologies and wastes on unwary consumers. The IOCU’s Consumer Interpol program has a Hazardous Product Alert network that springs into action when MNC’s start dumping known hazards, such as children’s sleepwear that had been treated with the carcinogenic chemical, Tris.
One of the IOCU’s key priorities in the mid-1980s was ratification at the United Nations of Guidelines for Consumer Protection, a crusade initiated by then-IOCU Representative Dorothy K. Willner. “In a world where double standards in international trade, different safety measures, warnings, quality standards and even different ethics are all too common, the guidelines represent a solid new basis for work to make the marketplace safer and more responsive to consumer needs wherever that marketplace is located,” said Esther Peterson, the former consumer advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and Willner’s successor as the IOCU advocate at the U.N. Even though the proposed standards were relatively modest and simply reaffirmed long-accepted public policies in the U.S., the Reagan administration and its corporate allies staunchly opposed the U.N. guidelines as “socialistic” and “totalitarian.” They feared that the new guidelines would give foreign consumer organizations new legitimacy and clout within their own countries to press for reforms. Peterson spent several years helping to draft the guidelines and win U.N. approval of them, which finally occurred in April 1985.
The next legal frontier in taming the abuses of international capital is U.N. ratification of a voluntary Code of Conduct for Transnational Corporations, which would address all aspects of the relationships of multinational corporations to their host states. The Code, if and when adopted, would require MNCs to comply with host-country laws and international health, safety and quality standards; new information disclosures about hazardous products and services; and new information disclosures in labeling, advertising and packaging, among other provisions, many originally proposed by Nader in 1973.
The international consumer movement marched into a new policy arena in 1990 as major multinational corporations tried to use the GATT trade negotiations — the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade — to degrade health, safety and environmental protections and to gain greater control over Third World markets and resources. The GATT agreements, first negotiated after World War II, are meant to encourage free trade among nations by lowering tariffs, reducing import quotas and eliminating other restrictions on trade. The 140-odd nations that have agreed to GATT’s rules account for about 85 percent of the $3 trillion in world trade every year.
As the U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills was completing five years of negotiations, big business aggressively pushed the notion of “harmonization” of health and safety regulations — i.e., that there be a uniform international standard for food safety, product hazards, environmental controls, and so forth, supposedly as a means to encourage free trade. In practice, Nader and his associates charged, however, that “harmonization” was a corporate ruse to weaken regulations to the lowest common denominator of the GATT-signatory nations. In essence, it would achieve a global deregulation of health, safety and environmental regulation. For example, “harmonized” pesticide residue standards would allow up to fifty times more DDT on bananas and peaches than the U.S. currently allows. These standards would be established by a Rome-based science commission, Codex Alimentarius, which is heavily influenced by industry.
Besides this adverse impact, GATT talks would impose a new form of colonial dependence on Third World nations. Instead of encouraging less developed nations to bolster their domestic industries and become more self-reliant, multinational companies want more expansive GATT rules — covering service industries, intellectual property and foreign investments — so that even greater portions of Third World economies will come under the control of foreign companies. Global companies in banking, insurance, information and communications, media, accountants, and advertising would be able to muscle out indigenous industries, exploiting them for absentee foreign owners instead of that nation’s best interests. Less developed nations would be even less able to control their economies, satisfy the social desires of their peoples, and retain a measure of cultural autonomy.
Because the GATT talks so profoundly imperil the economic and social sovereignty of less developed nations, Public Citizen and other consumer, environmental and farm groups mounted the Fair Trade Campaign in 1991 to publicize the anti-consumer, anti-environmental implications of the GATT and U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade treaties. They also sought to open up the entire trade-negotiation process to public scrutiny, as a matter fit for congressional involvement. “What’s really at work in all of these proposed agreements,” wrote Nader and Michael Waldman, director of Congress Watch, “is the yearning by multinational firms to break free from the constraints of national sovereignty. They want global commerce, but without global law to hold them accountable.”
The international consumer movement, like the U.S. movement, is greatly surpassed by international capital, which has far greater mobility, manpower, and other resources. What has allowed the consumer movement to prevail in many instances, despite such disadvantages, is its moral credibility, rigorous research and sheer tenacity.
“Give me a place to stand and I will move the world,” said Archimedes, explaining the power of an imaginary lever and fulcrum. It could be the maxim of Nader and the consumer movement, whose work has been, first, to imagine new “levers” to move the worlds of law, economics, politics and government, and then to mobilize the support to make their imaginary levers real. What distinguishes the levers devised by the consumer movement are their ability to address structural problems, dramatically change the premises of a given environment and empower citizens.
Unsafe At Any Speed could be cited as exemplary in this regard. It helped instigate new government leadership for auto safety, new scientific research into auto and highway safety, new principles of tort liability (i.e., the “crashworthiness” standard), and a more vigilant buying public. Subsequent reforms proposed by the consumer movement have the same leitmotif of addressing fundamental problems with transformative solutions. These include greater citizen access to the legal system; campaign finance reform to alter the character of politics itself; strict separation of powers in the federal government to ensure accountability to the American people; vigorous antitrust enforcement to promote a more competitive marketplace; federal chartering of corporations to help make business more democratically accountable; and government leadership for health, safety and environmental protection.
The consumer movement has also devised many innovative levers to empower consumers and citizens. The PIRGs have enlisted tens of thousands of students in the traditions of citizen action. The citizen utility boards are providing a new tool for citizen oversight of arcane technical issues and the rate-setting process. New engines of consumer information — from within government, the press, the consumer movement and others — have invigorated the marketplace and empowered consumers to make intelligent buying choices. The principles of open government and freedom of information have enabled citizens, reporters, scholars and others to hold government and business more accountable, often altering their conduct in profound ways. And group buying and group complaint-handling offers the prospect of a more autonomous, efficient and benign consumer-side alternative to the seller-side arrangements that typically prevail in our economy today.
These are among the changes that the consumer movement has introduced to American society, often after long and bruising battles in Congress, the courts and the press. If the consumer movement continues to have a sense of embattlement after achieving so much, it is because it is emphatically oriented to the future. Shaping the future typically involves challenging present norms, which invariably requires an element of struggle. In his 1982 book, Winning Back America, Mark Green captured the sense of underdog bravado that characterizes much of the consumer movement by quoting a war dispatch sent by Ferdinand Foch, field marshall for the French during the battle of the Marne against the Germans in World War I. In the midst of battle, Foch sent this message to his headquarters: “My center is giving way, my right is pulled back….Situation excellent. I am attacking.”