To have power means to have responsibility

This post originally appeared on SOCAP International’s Web site

Guest blog by Matt D’Uva, President of the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals

I had the absolute privilege to attend the Trumpeter Award Dinner on Tuesday night hosted by the National Consumers League.  NCL, founded in 1899, is an inspiring organization.  They have been fighting the good fight for important causes such as workers’ rights, consumers’ rights, and equal pay for equal work.  Although the organization is well over 100 years old, this year marks the 40th Anniversary of the Trumpeter Awards Dinner which, of course, made me think about the interesting connection between this celebration and SOCAP’s own 40th anniversary.

Organizations like NCL have been a critical player in important movements in the history of our country, such as the consumer movement which helped create new legislation, practices and accountability which ultimately led to the creation of SOCAP and literally the customer care profession.  I believe that leaders like Florence Kelly, the first general secretary of the NCL (and the namesake of one of the Trumpeter Awards), would be thrilled to see the power of consumers today.  I believe she would be challenging organizations like SOCAP and our members to ensure that the Voice of the Consumer is alive, strong and elevated within companies on every issue.  Ms. Kelly once famously said, “To buy means to have power, to have power means to have responsibility”.

This responsibility is born by consumers, by customer care executives and by organizations like SOCAP and NCL.  To that end, SOCAP has worked hard to build a partnership with the National Consumers League to ensure that we are living up to Ms. Kelly’s challenge of taking our responsibility seriously to consumers.  For example, SOCAP—working through our local chapters and our national members—actively supports NCL’s LifeSmarts program which works with young people in grades 6 – 12 to help them learn important skills to better and more educated consumers.  Our members help write questions, volunteer their time, and donate funds to help the LifeSmarts program grow.  As SOCAP’s President and CEO, I also serve as a member of the Advisory Board.

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President’s Day reflections

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Happy President’s Day! Over this holiday weekend, I’ve been reflecting on last month’s Inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th President, and imagining how much NCL’s founders and champions would have liked this man. First off, they would have been proud that our American electorate has voted overwhelming for the second time to send an African American to the White House. During her most active organizing years, Florence Kelley often decried the disreputable treatment of her Black colleagues who were many times banned from hotels and restaurants when social workers or women’s groups gathered at conferences across the country.

Secondly, though our president is moderate in all of his actions, he also has a strong progressive streak that leaders like Florence Kelley, Frances Perkins and Josephine Roche would have greatly appreciated. After being elected with a healthy margin, Obama seems willing to be a little more daring, and thankfully not intimidated by those who fixate on debt and, instead, focus on other priorities: championing comprehensive immigration reform, addressing the pay gap between men and women in the workplace, raising the minimum wage and tying it to inflation, and educating pre-schoolers and giving them a leg up on their future.

The President also announced the formation of a commission to address the rampant problems in the nation’s voting system—and hailed a 102-year-old North Miami woman named Desilene Victor, who endured hours of waiting to vote in the last election. These issues would all have won favor with NCL’s leaders.

Obama challenged his opponents on their opposition to tax increases for the rich at the expense of kids and seniors: “After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks?” Another issue near and dear to the hearts of the NCL’s founders.

The president also called for an infrastructure-boosting bridge-building program and insisted, very forcefully and long overdue that climate change be at the top of the agenda; no, these were not programs that Kelley, Perkins or Roche knew of in their day, but I think they would have approved, largely because these programs mean jobs for working Americans and will protect future generations.

NCL symposium examines consumer issues and the next Congress

By John Breyault, NCL Vice President of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud

The freshman class of the 113th Congress will feature 12 new Senators and 67 new Representatives. For consumer advocates, this is an opportunity to introduce ourselves to these new lawmakers and develop relationships that can help promote our economic and social justice mission on the Hill. Freshman like Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren have long been heroes to the consumer movement, but others such as Senator-elect Heidi Heitkamp and Members-elect Kevin Cramer, Joseph Kennedy III, and George Holding all have experience in regulatory agencies and in the legal system where consumer issues arise.

The incoming members of the 113th Congress will have a full agenda when it comes to consumer issues. Even before the next Congress, the Lame Duck session of the current 112th Congress is tackling the so-called “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

It is in this context that NCL convened our inaugural Consumer Issues Symposium on Wednesday, November 14 to examine the future of three important consumer issues in the lame duck session and the coming 113th Congress. We chose to focus the event on three issues near and dear to NCL’s heart – food safety, sequestration and privacy. The goal of the event was to examine not only the future prospects for consumer-focused legislation in Congress, but also to highlight the real-world impact of these policy areas on consumers.

For example, the sequestration cuts envisioned as part of the “fiscal cliff” will require numerous federal agencies to significantly scale back their activities. When the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is projected to take an $86 million haircut, what does that mean for the safety of America’s food supply? Likewise, in a scenario where the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program is on track to take a $285 million budget hit, how will consumers living through the cold winter months adjust?

The event, organized in partnership with the law firm of Kelley Drye, was a great success. (Historical note: One of Kelley Drye’s name partners was Nicholas Kelley, son of Florence Kelley, the first General Secretary of NCL). It featured more than a dozen expert speakers from Executive Branch, Congress and advocacy organizations, including FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, FDA Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor and former Congresswoman and CPSC Commissioner Anne Northup. Photos from the event are currently viewable on NCL’s Facebook page.

 

Getting to know Linda Hilton and Crossroads Urban Center

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

In early October, NCL presented Linda Hilton, advocacy director of Salt Lake City’s Crossroads Urban Center, our Florence Kelley award.  This recognition is reserved for an advocate working outside of Washington DC – often an unsung hero doing heroic work – like advocating for low-income consumers against payday lenders or check cashing operations, fighting sub-prime lending, or exorbitant college loans.

I had occasion to visit Linda in Salt Lake City several weeks after she received our award and observed, first hand, how deserving a recipient she was. Like Florence Kelley, Hilton is indefatigable on behalf of the working class and poor in her native Salt Lake City.

The Crossroads Center is located on the outskirts of downtown Salt Lake City. The Saturday afternoon of my visit a homeless man was asleep in front of the Center. Linda leaned over and asked him by name if everything was okay. About 30 percent of Crossroads’ clients are homeless; that number includes hundreds of homeless families. The man camping out on the lawn of the Center nodded yes. She and I walked inside and she showed me around.

The Center provides vital services to low and middle-income Salt Lake residents. It operates 9-5, Monday –Friday, which in itself is unusual. Linda told me that often when it opens on Monday morning, a line of people are waiting outside – many of them are lined up simply to use a bathroom because they have no other access to toilets or water and sinks for washing. The Center’s staff are also able to cut through the red tape for the clients, a critical resource for anyone trying to get government benefits.

For example, someone entitled to Food Stamps but whose benefits have gotten cancelled or whose paperwork is missing can get same day emergency access to food because Crossroads professional staff has the contacts and knows who to call. The Center provides vouchers for gas for the working poor, many of whom may have jobs but don’t make enough on minimum wage jobs to fill their gas tanks. Bus passes are also distributed so people can get to doctor’s appoints, apply for services and get to work.

Crossroads Center also has a robust network of doctors and even dentists – dental care is especially hard access for low-income families – who are willing to provide free medical and dental services for Crossroad’s clients.

Finally, I got a close look at supplies in the food pantry. Cans of Bumble Bee tuna, Skippy Peanut Butter, canned chicken and beef chili lined the walls, along with bags of lentils and black beans, crackers and chips. Also, boxes of toothbrushes and toothpaste, along with hotel size bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body lotion, were stacked at the Food Bank. I stay in hotels a lot for work and often leave the cosmetics behind. But now I’ve started a collection which I’ll donate to our local homeless drop in center near my home in DC.

Linda showed me the chart they use – if you are a family of three the food pantry has a set list of what you need to eat for several days; if you’re a family of ten, that list is a lot longer. On another whiteboard was NC – for the homeless or others who have no way to cook. They get canned and other food that doesn’t need to be heated up.

Finally, Linda also leads the Coalition for Religious Communities, which does advocacy work on behalf of the very people Crossroads serves. Her critical work in advocating for the reduction reducing sales tax on food in the state of Utah and fighting payday lenders is directly influenced by her day-to-day connections with Crossroads’ clients. She tells the stories much better than I can. (Read what she had to say about her work in her remarks here.) I couldn’t be more proud that Linda Hilton accepted the Florence Kelley award and that NCL gave her the much deserved recognition for her remarkable advocacy on behalf of Utah’s most needy.

NCL honoring Linda Hilton with Florence Kelley Award

At Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City, Utah for the past 14 years, Linda Hilton has served in a dual position. Her two posts include Director of Community Outreach and Director of Coalition of Religious Communities (CORC), a statewide interfaith social justice advocacy group with members from 17 diverse faiths founded to lift the state’s sales tax on groceries. Through Hilton’s efforts, CORC has helped to repeal more than half of the state sales tax on food, which hit those with the lowest incomes the hardest, and continues to push for complete repeal. Through this coalition, Hilton has led efforts to provide food to the hungry and advocated for better access to health care for the poor.

In 1999, CORC launched a campaign to regulate the booming payday loan industry, which operated in Utah with few restrictions or accountability. Hilton blew the whistle on a Utah-based credit union that was making payday-type loans, leading to an investigation by the national trade press; the loan program was ultimately discontinued. Hilton also co-authored a manual on local zoning and ordinances to curb payday lending.

Hilton’s advocacy includes working for funding of critical needs for low-income and homeless residents of Utah, fairer tax rates for low-income citizens, and to reverse a Utah law prohibiting cities and towns in the state from enacting “living wage” requirements. She speaks frequently to community and religious groups about the struggles of low-income and homeless families; she trains students and members of faith communities to advocate for low-income citizens; and she conducts community workshops on the need for increased wages for the working poor.

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Hilton is the recipient of a number of local awards, including the Church Women United, United Nations Office, Human Rights Award for social activism in Utah. Hilton is passionate about volunteerism and social justice, and has made an impressive career out of advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves. She embodies perfectly the spirit of the namesake of this award, NCL’s leader, Florence Kelley, who, like Hilton, tirelessly championed the rights of the working poor and forced policymakers to address their needs for better wages, working conditions, housing, and health care.

Happy 106th birthday to two landmark food safety laws!

This week marks the 106th anniversary of the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, two landmark pieces of consumer based legislation which established the modern food protection system as we know it.  Without these two important pieces of legislation, our food system in this country would be virtually unrecognizable. It is these pieces of legislation which provide the basic framework for food safety in this country. Founded in 1899 as an organization dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of both workers and consumers, the National Consumers League, led by Florence Kelley, played a major part in getting these two important pieces of legislation passed.

Spurred by chilling descriptions of the horrible conditions common in meat-packing plants that Upton Sinclair described in his seminal work The Jungle, published in 1905, Congress passed the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The law mandated antemortem inspection of livestock, postmortem inspection of each carcass and the continuous inspection of slaughter by U.S. Department of Agriculture employees. The Act also established sanitary standards for slaughtering facilities for the first time. It was this Act which created our modern-day Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which provides inspection in all the slaughterhouses around the country, ensuring that we have safe and wholesome meat to consume.

The Pure Food and Drugs Act, also of 1906, created the modern-day U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though it would not be known by that name until the 1930s. This Act not only established the FDA as we know it, it also made it illegal to sell adulterated and misbranded food and drugs across state lines. For the first time, consumers had legal protection of their right to pure food and drugs.

Though the contemporary USDA and FDA may be different in some ways than they were in the early 20th century due to new laws which have updated the requirements for both agencies, the two laws laid the foundation for agencies focused on consumer protection. It is with pride at our involvement in the establishment of these laws that NCL wishes them a happy 106th birthday!

Understanding Rosen

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

This past week in Washington a big kerfuffle broke out over comments of political commentator Hilary Rosen. Rosen said on TV that “Ann Romney never worked a day in her life,” when talking about how Mitt Romney -Republican Presidential nominee -was using his wife Ann as a campaign surrogate to try to appeal to women voters. Ann Romney was always a stay-at-home mom who had five sons after marrying Mitt at age 19.

After Rosen’s comment; the right wing blogosphere went wild, claiming that Rosen didn’t respect as “work” the job of being a mother of five children. President Obama rushed to distance himself from Rosen’s comments, assuring voters that he thought taking care of kids was real work, while Obama aide, David Axelrod, said “I thought we had an obligation to speak and speak very, very quickly to make clear that this didn’t reflect our point of view and that we thought Hilary should apologize. She did do that.”

Yes, she did apologize, but I think her comment was unfairly taken out of context and the rush to stem any damage obscured the larger and very important point she was making. Sure, Rosen might have edited her comment by saying “Ann Romney never worked a day – outside the home – in her life,” but it’s clear that Rosen was talking about how working women – those who go to a job outside the home every day – have to juggle a lot of responsibilities – if they have children, they have to find care for them while they work, most women, married or not, still do the majority of house work – shopping for food and clothing, cleaning the house, doing laundry. Finding affordable child care alone is a huge challenge for many women who earn modest wages. Then there is the ongoing battle for equal pay that women face in the workplace each day.

Labor and consumer activist Esther Peterson, when she worked at the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor, called it “The Double Day:” Women worked at a job and then went home and worked to shop, cook, and put dinner on the table.

Yes, Ann Romney raised five children, but her husband made a lot of money and she surely had household help with those five boys –someone to do laundry, clean the house, care for the boys, cook meals, etc.

Florence Kelley, who lead the NCL for our first 33 years, wrote about the plight of working woman who were burdened with raising children and keeping house while holding down a job. Indeed, she had three children of her own whom she adored but was forced to house them with friends in suburban Chicago so she could live at Hull House and do her reform work. She had little money of her own, and her NCL wages were meager; benefactors helped pay the tuition for her children’s education.

I think Florence Kelley would have understood all too well what Hilary Rosen was trying to say: while raising children surely is work, it’s not the same as going to a job outside the home each day and Ann Romney – given her affluence – is hardly the average working American woman who balances the job with raising children and keeping house.

Health care in America on trial this week

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

This is a very big week for health care in America. The constitutionality of Affordable Care Act is being argued in the Supreme Court. This landmark legislation that provides near universal health care in America after many decades of failed attempts – and that groups like NCL have been working for throughout our history- is in hot dispute. Despite the fact that the United States remains the only Western country that doesn’t provide universal health care for its citizens, this one issue has generated more noise – on the right in particular – than practically anything else.

This highly unusual argument is going to be spread over three days. Tuesday the court will hear from proponents and opponents on the individual mandate’s constitutionality.

The law’s opponents include 26 states that are arguing that Congress has no power under the Constitution to order people to buy anything-and that if the law stands, Congress will have sweeping new authority to dictate our behavior. Also on the table is whether – if the individual mandate is struck, and I hope it isn’t because the law really doesn’t work without it – whether the rest of the law falls down.

One lower court has ruled that individual mandate is unconstitutional, but several others said it could remain. The thing is, the public wants people to be covered even if they have a pre-existing condition and parents want their kids covered til 26, especially since many young people don’t have jobs. Both are guarantees in the ACA.

The Court will also review requirements that poor people be covered by the states, and imposes new requirements on the states to ensure that this coverage is available. I agree with those who believe that this case may be the most important set of rulings since FDR’s New Deal legislation was challenged at the Supreme Court.

Florence Kelley, NCL’s first leader, was stymied in many of her initiatives – minimum wage, maximum hours and child labor laws when the Court struck such laws she worked so hard to get enacted. (though she – and Justice Brandeis won the right for women to be covered by maximum hours laws in Muller v. Oregon) But ultimately, justice won out and all are laws and protections we cherish today. I can only hope that the Affordable Healthcare Act withstands the challenges and survives intact.

But if we lose this round, and I don’t think we will, I expect that justice will ultimately win out and Americans will enjoy universal health care at long last.

Unemployment benefits may rise

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Right now, the federal minimum wage rate applies everywhere except in states that set higher minimum rates, where 18 states have minimums higher than the federal rate and 23 have the same requirement. Some jobs, such as on small farms, are exempt from minimum wage rules.

Last month, the minimum wage automatically rose in eight states — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington — that index it to cost-of-living increases.  USA Today recently produced this helpful chart on state-by-state minimum wages.

There’s been some recent activity in states around the country to raise the minimum wage; bills were introduced to boost the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 in New York and from $8.25 to $9.75 in Connecticut, indexing further increases to inflation. Seven other states —New Jersey,  Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, California, and Missouri — are also weighing basic wage increases.

The National Employment Law Project, an organization that does advocacy and research on behalf of the working poor,  says the federal minimum should be raised to $10 to make up for the failure to keep pace with inflation in the 1970s. Since the recession began, the inflation-adjusted salaries of low-wage workers have fallen 2.3 percent.

About 1.8 million of the US’s  73 million hourly workers earned the federal minimum wage in 2010 — many in the retail, restaurant and hospitality sectors — but the fact is that people earning a bit more than minimum wage will see their compensation rise too. Noting that low-wage workers spend nearly all of their extra income, the Economic Policy Institute estimates such an increase would generate an extra $20 billion in economic output and 160,000 jobs.

Business groups  typically oppose minimum-wage increases because they  have to pay more in compensation and benefits. But this dance occurs every time the minimum wage goes up and business usually goes along with it. They come around because they understand ultimately that the more people at the lower end of the economic spectrum earn, the more they spend on the necessities – groceries, utilities, transportation, clothing  etc – all of which stimulates the economy and is ultimately good for business.  NCL’s Florence Kelley wrote the first minimum wage laws in the United States, and she was right  – these protections have proved critically important for those who work hard but earn the least.

Honoring Black History Month

February is Black History Month and a wonderful time to celebrate the achievements of African Americans, and recognize  the role African Americans have played in shaping American history.

Black History Month is also a great opportunity to celebrate the National Consumers League’s historical connection to the Civil Rights Movement. NCL supported racial equality from the beginning; Florence Kelley, NCL’s first leader, was a founding member of the NAACP. During the New Deal, NCL called for including domestic and agricultural workers in labor laws and social security programs, and was alone among women’s groups in demanding racial justice. Lucy Mason, head of the League during the 1930s, also served on the NAACP’s board, and cautioned against “that tendency to believe that the colored worker needs less than the white worker.”

In honor of Back History Month, here are just a few events that helped shape the American workplace and secure equal treatment for consumers and workers across the nation. The events not only celebrate the many African American leaders and activists, but also serve to underscore the remarkable achievements we have made toward racial equality as a country in the past century:

1909: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is formed on February 12 in New York City

1910: The National Urban League is founded in New York City on September 29. The Urban League is organized to help African Americans secure employment and adjust to urban life

1925: The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a labor union organized by African American employees of the Pullman Company, was formed with Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph as its first president

1941: On June 25, President Franklin Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802, desegregating war production plants and creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC).

1954: On May 17, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declares segregation in all public schools in the United States unconstitutional

1954: Attorney Frankie Muse Freeman (born Marie Frankie Muse),  serves as lead attorney for the NAACP in Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority , which ended racial discrimination in public housing in the city. Freeman was the first black woman to win a major civil rights case

1964: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed by Congress on July 2. The act bans discrimination in all public accommodations and by employers and establishes the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) to monitor compliance with the law.

1968: Congress enacts the Civil Rights Act of 1968,  which outlaws discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.

NCL proudly acknowledges Black History Month, salutes the accomplishments of all of the great historical figures and leaders who have worked for justice and equality for all, and looks to the future for the many equal rights achievements still to come!