Pioneer fights on for consumer safety

September 04, 1995|By Rebecca Smith | Rebecca Smith,Knight-Ridder News Service

Helen Nelson isn't a household name, but her work as a consumer pioneer has helped households across America for two generations. Pick a major moment in the postwar consumer movement and Helen Nelson was there, somewhere.

Ms. Nelson fought for protections and powers we now take for granted: care labels on clothing, date and nutrition labels on food packages, octane ratings on gasoline pumps and credit terms on contracts.

She was California's first governor-appointed consumer advocate, from 1959 to 1966, and advised two presidents and Congress on consumer matters. For 17 years, she's headed the non-profit Consumer Research Foundation in Mill Valley, Calif.

To achieve change, "you have to make a commitment and hang on for a long time," says Ms. Nelson. "It's inglorious but satisfying."

Making change

Now, at age 81, Ms. Nelson has added another achievement to her remarkable career. She has produced a video documentary titled "Change Makers: The Struggle for Consumer Rights," which chronicles the postwar history of the consumer movement. The $200,000 documentary took five years to fund, write and produce. Ms. Nelson hopes it will be aired on public television.

But she's not letting the wait for that hold up distribution. She's overseeing preparation of a teacher's guide for the educational market. A book containing edited conversations with the 35 consumer leaders interviewed for the film will appear next year.

Ms. Nelson says she wants to remind consumers of "the power that comes from dealing with sellers as peers . . . and the encouragement that comes from remembering how many great things were achieved by ordinary people."

Despite her advancing age, Ms. Nelson makes frequent trips to Washington to press for consumer causes.

She's afraid that some of the gains of the recent past could be lost through complacency.

Her hour-long film, co-produced and co-written by Gary Shepard, begins with the swearing in of John F. Kennedy and shows excerpts of his 1962 address to Congress.

In it, Kennedy enunciated four basic consumer rights: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose and the right to be heard. Ms. Nelson remembers the speech well; she helped craft those four rights as a presidential adviser.

She regards the speech as a landmark in the American consumer movement because it made the movement's goals part of the legislative agenda, leading to the passage of dozens of pro-consumer laws and policies.

At the time, grass roots organizations were popping up, propelled by a wave of consumerism that swept the nation after World War II. One of Kennedy's first acts was to create a Consumer Advisory Council. Among those tapped to serve were Ms. Nelson, one of three women who were the first state-legislated "consumer counsels," representing New York, California and Massachusetts.

Ms. Nelson was the choice of then-Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown in 1959. She had a distinguished record as an economist for state and federal agencies, beginning in 1938 with the California Department of Employment.

After 20 years of research, she was happy to put her knowledge to direct use. "I never was satisfied with just doing research, though I understood the value," she recalls. "I wanted to see something come of it that would help people."

She had the support of her late husband, Nathan Nelson, a historian and activist for the rights of the disabled.

A 'woman's' issue

At the time, no one understood how broad the consumer movement would become -- thus women were generally tapped for appointive positions. By 1966, 16 states had consumer counsels; most evolved into offices of consumer affairs.

She remembers one man approaching her, after a speech, who said it was a "perfectly silly idea" to have a consumer counsel. Couldn't his wife do that for him?

The counsels were expected, mostly, to listen to consumers. But the counsels, many of whom were economists like Ms. Nelson who had held responsible positions during the war, immediately pTC tackled hard issues -- fair credit, food safety and false advertising.

Consumer consciousness among both men and women was heightened, particularly as they saw the counsels take on powerful business lobbies.

Breaking the codes

The film talks about the concern of consumers about the freshness of packaged foods, especially those transported across state lines. Packages had dates, but they were encoded. Deliverymen could decipher them, but not shoppers.

"The women's groups had great fun breaking the codes and then handing out the information at the supermarkets," says Ms. Nelson. "It made the grocers look silly."

Out of that sort of early agitation, backed state officials like Ms. Nelson, came an outpouring of federal consumer legislation in the 1960s.

Now the consumer movement, Ms. Nelson says, is at a crossroads.

She hopes "Change Makers" will educate the public, give consumers an appreciation of the progress that's occurred in her lifetime -- and encourage them to organize and seek more reform.

"I hope the documentary will convince people of their important role as consumers," she says. "I don't like to talk to people as victims, but to remind them they have rights, strengths and powers."

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