The Corporate Takeover
of a Consumer Group
excerpted from the book
by Russel Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
Common Courage Press, 1999
It used to be that you could tell where big corporations were
coming from because they would speak through aptly named lobbying
But then, about twenty years ago, corporations wised up and
realized that no citizen was going to take seriously the proclamations
of the Tobacco Institute or the Business Roundtable.
So, big corporations decided to try new ways to delude the
public. They set up or helped fund think tanks (American Enterprise
Institute, Hudson Institute), they set up front groups (Citizens
Against Lawsuit Abuse, Electric Consumers Association), and they
funded public interest organizations (World Wildlife Federation,
Environmental Defense Fund).
But never has corporate America been so bold as to take over
an existing consumer group. Until now.
The National Consumers League, founded by labor and consumer
activists at the turn of the century, calls itself "America's
pioneer consumer advocacy organization."
While the League does some good work on child labor issues,
it has been saturated in recent years with financial contributions
from major U.S. corporations to the point where it can no longer
be considered a legitimate independent consumer or public interest
While refusing to give specific numbers detailing how much
money each corporation or industry has contributed, League officials
say that 39 percent of the group's 1997 budget of $1.3 million
came from corporations and industry associations.
All indications are that a far greater percentage of the League's
current 1998 budget is flooding in from corporate America. And
the League is planning on an unprecedented shakedown of the corporate
money tree for its planned upcoming 100th anniversary bash next
Almost every current project, seminar, brochure, newsletter
and fundraising dinner is sponsored in large part by major corporations
or industry associations, with some supplemental money coming
in from labor unions.
For example, an upcoming conference, Focus on Youth: The New
Consumer Power, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, May ~8, 1998, is
sponsored in large part by a coalition of major corporations that
traditionally have been hostile to consumer interests, including
Visa USA, the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association,
the Chlorine Chemistry Council, Monsanto, General Motors, Burson-Marsteller,
and the National Meat Association.
An April 1997 conference titled "Health Care: How Do
Consumers Manage?" was sponsored by major pharmaceutical
and health care companies, including Bristol-Myers, Glaxo Wellcome,
Pfizer, Wyeth-Ayerst Labs, Kaiser Permanente, Merck, PacifiCare
Health Systems, SmithKline Beecham, and Pharmacia & Upjohn.
Big labor unions are also listed as contributors to the conference.
An Intemet Fraud Watch program is being sponsored by MasterCard
The annual "NCL Trumpeter Award Reception and Dinner"
brings in about 40 percent of the League's annual budget. Last
year, the League honored Carol Tucker Foreman, a public relations
executive, and Liz Claiborne Inc., a clothing manufacturer that
has been tied most recently to sweatshops in China. One of three
top contributors to the dinner was Liz Claibome. The other two
were Allstate Insurance and WyethAyerst.
The next five top contributors were AT&T, Edison Electric
Institute, Monsanto Company, Schering Plough, and Visa USA.
Earlier this month, the League co-sponsored with the Electric
Consumers' Alliance a conference titled "Restructuring of
the Electric Industry: What is the Impact?" The Alliance
is a front group for the Edison Electric Institute.
The League refused to answer questions about who paid for
this conference, or exactly how much money corporations are paying
to sponsor the League's various conferences and programs.
The League's executive director, Linda Golodner, did not return
repeated phones calls over a three week period seeking comment
on this article.
But a walk through the League's downtown Washington, D.C.
office reminds a visitor of the pervasive influence of Corporate
America over the League's agenda.
Almost every consumer publication in the League's front office
was paid for by a major corporation or industry group.
A "Consumer Guide to Choosing Your Telephone Service"
was paid for by Ameritech.
A "Consumer Credit Series" of reports (Shopping
for a Loan? How Much Is It Going to Cost?, Denied Credit?-The
Credit Report Blues) was paid for by Fleet Finance Inc, a subsidiary
of Fleet Financial Group.
A brochure titled "Making Sense of Your New Communications
Choices" was paid for by GTE.
A pamphlet titled "Take Care with Over the Counter Asthma
Medicine" was paid for by Syntex, a pharmaceutical company.
A newsletter, "Community Credit Link," is paid for
by Visa USA.
The League refused to answer specific questions about how
much money corporations are giving to support these various projects,
or what percentage of the League's budget comes from non-corporate
When asked why a consumer group is taking any money at all
from corporations that fight consumer interests in Washington,
D.C. and around the country, League spokesperson Cleo Manuel said,
"I wish we didn't have to."