Consumers Union: going beyond the `best buy'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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.

Karpatkin, who was CU's outside attorney before coming to her current post 1974, defends the merit-pay system as a way of rewarding excellence, and adds that the organization has ``one of the best among all the Guild's contracts.''

Gordon Hard, a staff writer at CU and unit vice-chairman of the Newspaper Guild, contends that the merit-pay plan is a union-busting tactic. ``Every contract since [Karpatkin] has been the chief has been an agony to negotiate. She's a lawyer and she likes to fight. She doesn't like to lose,'' he says.

Adding poignancy to the conflict is the keen sense of mission the employees tend to have about their work. ``People feel torn apart,'' one worker says. ``On the one hand, they really love working here. They're proud of the organization and the opportunity to do good. On the other hand, they're also crushed by what management is trying to do.... We see [the merit-pool plan] as a divisive tool that pits employees against one another.''

These days money is much less a concern than in the past. The organization has a surplus of more than $6 million, and its income is no longer as dependent on subscriptions to Consumer Reports. To diversify its revenue sources, Consumers Union has expanded into other areas, including syndicated newspaper and radio features, a monthly travel newsletter, an auto price service, a consumer magazine for children, and a book publishing operation. ``People are getting a lot of consumer information from books,'' Karpatkin notes. ``I thought we should have ours out there, because they will be sound and reliable, and I hope, as often as possible, the best.''

This greater financial stability has given CU more freedom to develop another key part of its mission - advocacy. ``Part of our initial statement of purpose included the idea of joining with others to achieve a decent standard of living,'' Karpatkin explains. The organization's three advocacy offices, along with other groups, have adopted a successful strategy of researching prime consumer issues, letting the media publicize the findings, and then, when the public begins to grumble, proposing legislation to lawmakers.

Top on Karpatkin's list of targets is health care. ``We have about 37 million Americans who have no coverage whatever for health care ... at a time when costs are astronomical,'' she says. ``Our response to this is that it is the No. 1 consumer protection issue for our three advocacy offices right now.''

Joan Claybrook, president of the national consumer group Public Citizen and also a member of CU's board of directors, says, ``I think Consumers Union is doing many things that are wonderful. But one thing I'd like to see is putting more pressure on companies that manufacture defective products ... more press releases calling attention to problems in products, letters to the executive officers of the company urging them to recall the product, letters to regulatory agencies.''

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