Consumers Union: going beyond the `best buy'
Mount Vernon, N.Y.
CONSUMER REPORTS, the magazine that has come to be known as the ``shopper's bible,'' unsettled its affluent readers earlier this year by running a series about the problems of the working poor. Amid the usual fare of articles evaluating goods and services, ``Life at the Edge'' profiled several families who often cannot afford to buy food, clothing, and shelter, much less the new cars, VCRs, and food processors the magazine features.Skip to next paragraph
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Some readers were angry. One wrote, ``Other publications tell us all we want to know about the injustice of not having enough money. Let's have more consumer advice and leave the philosophy to the sociologists.''
Others were grateful, like the one who applauded the ``awareness that consumer issues involve not only product performance but human values as well.''
Rhoda Karpatkin, executive director of Consumers Union (CU), the nonprofit organization that publishes the magazine, is unfazed by the mixed reactions. She is not about to let the 51-year-old organization settle back into a comfy middle age.
``We did the series in order to dramatize this issue for our subscribers and the public,'' she explains. ``We're sending the series to legislators and journalists in order to heighten their awareness of what the face of poverty is and how people just like them could be poor.''
CU's surveys show that, despite some strong responses, the series was not widely read among its 3.7 million subscribers. Nevertheless Irwin Landau, editorial director of the magazine, says he feels it's important to continue doing some social reporting, and he doesn't mind losing a few points with readers now and then. ``Our mandate is much broader than simply telling people what the best buy is. ... Consumer Reports is a good deal more than a service for the upwardly mobile.''
Consumers Union itself has been through hard times, and its executive director is no stranger to controversy. The last recession, combined with a postal rate increase, caught the organization unprepared, and it slid into debt. Ms. Karpatkin was forced to close CU's subscription fulfillment plant, whose costs were three times as high as the market price for such services.
That closing was one of several disputes Karpatkin has had with the union representing CU workers - disputes that have diverted some attention from her efforts to add new dimensions to the to the organization's work, including an emphasis on advocacy for the disadvantaged.
``The union still attacks management for having done it [closed the plant], but now that I've seen the numbers since 1980, I am 100 percent convinced that the organization would have been out of business but for that,'' she says, adding that there was plenty of belt-tightening, along with layoffs among management.
CU's employees got another shake-up this year when Karpatkin proposed a merit pay system rather than the usual across-the-board pay raise. The resulting dispute with the Newspaper Guild has been bitter. Many of the organization's 270 engineers, chemists, nutritionists, writers, and other personnel can be seen picketing outside the laboratory every Thursday, calling for a boycott of Consumer Reports.