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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Introducing the all-new Fraud.org!

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

NCL is proud to announce the relaunch of its anti-fraud education and advocacy campaign, Fraud.org. Today’s announcement is the culmination of nearly a year of work by the League to update its signature anti-fraud program to address the continued challenge of fighting rampant online and telemarketing fraud.

For more than 20 years, anti-fraud education and advocacy have been at the center of NCL’s mission. In 1992, under the leadership of former NCL President Linda Golodner, NCL launched the Alliance Against Fraud, a coalition of groups from the governmental, business, non-profit, and labor communities all united around the common goal of educating and empower consumers to avoid telemarketing scams. This collaboration led to the creation of the National Fraud Information Center, which operated one of the first consumer hotlines dedicated to counseling consumer victims of telemarketing fraud.

In the mid-1990’s millions of consumers were getting online for the first time via home dial-up connections and early broadband networks. This provided fertile ground for scam artists to use the new communications medium to reach millions of potential victims. In 1996, in response to the dramatic growth in Internet-based scams, the League launched Internet Fraud Watch and the original incarnation of Fraud.org. Then, as now, the program was designed to help consumers find up-to-date information on emerging scams and connect them with law enforcement and consumer protection agencies. In the 2000’s the NFIC/IFW (rebranded as NCL’s Fraud Center) regularly published educational brochures, Web content, and anti-fraud educators’ toolkits to help consumers and the agencies that work with them to fight back against fraud.

A new decade has brought new leadership and new challenges to the Fraud Center. With the vast majority of the U.S. population connected to broadband and carrying mobile phones, con artists have never had a more lucrative audience for their schemes. According to estimates from the Financial Fraud Research Center, the annual cost of consumer financial fraud in the U.S. is approximately $50 billion, on par with the annual gross output of the radio and television broadcasting industry. There is a global community of scam artists, as networked and tech-savvy as any Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Their global reach makes it especially difficult for American law enforcement to prosecute the con artists. As billion-dollar scams like the Bernie Madoff case illustrate, even savvy consumers remain vulnerable to fraud.

In the face of this, NCL has not been idle. In 2012, under Executive Director Sally Greenberg, the League launched Fraud Alerts – a monthly email service designed to directly alert consumers to emerging scams and empower them with tips on how to avoid being defrauded. Through the Alliance Against Fraud, NCL will in the coming months redouble its efforts to identify emerging scams and develop new tools to help consumers avoid becoming fraud victim statistics. Today, NCL continues that mission with the relaunch of its anti-fraud campaign. Focused on its iconic Web site, Fraud.org, NCL remains committed to consumer education and empowerment in the fight against fraud.

Through a complete overhaul of its design, the new Fraud.org will make it even easier for consumers to find the information they need to avoid scams. The new user experience includes:

  • An updated search function to help consumers search for scams in multiple ways, enabling them to go directly to a specific type of fraud or, using a more advanced search, identify the type of scam they’ve been exposed to if they aren’t sure;
  • Content that is easily shareable via social networks so that consumers can quickly pass along fraud warnings to friends and loved ones in need;
  • The ability to sign up for regular Fraud Alerts to help consumers stay abreast of emerging scams before they become victims; and
  • As always, consumers who have been victims of fraud or been approached by scammers can file complaints through our secure online complaint form. These complaints are then shared with our network of law enforcement and consumer protection partners.

Even with these new resources, the League can’t do it alone. Fraud.org depends on partner organizations and individual consumers to join in the fight against fraud. That’s why we continue to encourage consumers to come forward and report scams via the secure online complaint form on Fraud.org. We are also seeking to expand the membership of the Alliance Against Fraud, so that, through a growing coalition of like-minded partners in the fight against fraud, our concerns will be better heard by policymakers who can help make a difference.

The relaunch of Fraud.org isn’t just about a new Web site. It’s about rededicating ourselves to the notion that no one deserves to be a victim of fraud. With the new resources of Fraud.org and the collective power of the Alliance Against Fraud, we stand a real chance of putting a dent in the pain that scam artist inflict on consumers every day. We hope you love the new site! Check it out today.

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.

Challenges of modernizing hallmark food safety laws

Earlier this week, we wished a happy 106th birthday to the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, both of which were signed into law on June 30, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. While commemorating the history of these laws is important, so is looking ahead and thinking about what the future holds for the important institutions created by these landmark pieces of legislation.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law on January 4, 2011 by President Obama, is an example of the positive ways in which legislation can be modernized. FSMA would transform the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from an agency which merely responds to foodborne illnesses to one which actively works to prevent them. Unfortunately, this law is facing two major challenges to its implementation.

The first challenge facing FSMA is the current budget climate. With vastly increased responsibilities, FDA needs a corresponding increase in funding. However, in an era of fiscal austerity, government agencies across the board face funding cuts. This means FDA must do more with less, leaving the agency to make tough decisions about priorities. The inevitable result of this process of prioritization is that some things will slip through the cracks.

The second challenge facing FDA is the job of actually implementing the new law, a task which requires the release of many new regulations according to a time table. Four of these important rules, dealing with preventative controls (for both human food and animal feed), the foreign supplier verification program and produce safety, were due to be released in January. As of the writing of this blog post, these essential rules are being held up at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the White House. Because these rules are integral to the implementation of FSMA, food safety advocates have been joined by the industry in urging OMB to release the rules immediately. Without these rules, FSMA enactment is essentially stalled.

While FSMA seeks to modernize the FDA by improving and expanding the government’s role in keeping food safe, a proposed rule recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) entitled “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection,” would roll back the government’s role in keeping our food safe. If the proposed rule was enacted, some inspection duties, traditionally performed by trained government inspectors, would be transferred to plant employees who are under no training requirement. Additionally, the new program would decrease the number of federal inspectors on the line while simultaneously increasing allowable line speeds to 175 birds per minute. The practical result is that while inspectors had been examining one bird every three seconds, they would now be inspecting three birds every second. This increase in line speeds is a concern not only for food safety but also for workers. Both consumer and labor organization have called for USDA to back away from its proposal.

Today the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act face challenges of modernization. Modernization must be accompanied by sound science and must above all be free from political considerations. Modernization will require the teamwork of all the stakeholders involved. Consumers especially must let their elected officials know that these laws, the agencies they created and the continuation of the protections they provide are essential aspects of any modernization scheme.

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.

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!