A Valentine to Florence Kelley – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Friday’s Washington Post featured a story about the recession sending more women into the workplace, many returning to work after spending years at home with their kids. In 2008, the first year of the recession, employed wives contributed 45 percent of the household income, a high for the decade.

Experts think that the unemployment rate for men is higher at 10 percent because industries that are male-dominated, like construction and manufacturing, have been hit hardest in the economic downturn. Health care and education industries tend to be women-dominated, and in many cases they have actually added jobs, opening doors to women’s return to work. The women quoted in this article talk about how “hectic” life becomes once they go back to work, how getting home in the evening means daycare pickup, homework, dinner, and bedtime.

I find all of this really interesting when viewed through the lens of history. I’m currently reading the fascinating new publication, “The Selected Letters of Florence Kelley, 1869-19311” the National Consumers League’s first General Secretary. Kelley – who, from the very first day of NCL’s founding in 1899, fought valiantly for basic rights and protections of women that many of us take for granted today. Kelley worked for the right of women to earn minimum wage and not be forced to work more than 10 hours per day, six days a week (a protection upheld in the 1908 Supreme Court case of Muller v. Oregon).

When NCL was founded, millions of women in the United States went to work each day in factories, bakeries, mills, hospitals, or laundries in the near-dawn hours – or started work at night – and never knew when they would return home. Their employers controlled how long they worked and what they would get paid. And no one got paid overtime. To make matters worse, women often worked for pauper’s wages, while being exposed to dangerous working conditions, including exposure to chemicals, repetitive movements, poor ventilation, or dangerous machinery.

The worst thing the women quoted in Friday’s Washington Post article complain of are hectic nights now that they aren’t at home during the day with their children. Of course, many less fortunate women in this country still face sweatshop working conditions, low wages, and even “wage-theft” where they put in hours that their employers don’t pay them for. And NCL continues to support efforts to improve their lot.

But for millions of working women, conditions have improved enormously. On this Valentine’s Day, we owe a debt of thanks to Florence Kelley and the many women and men of the National Consumers League who fought in the courts, in the state legislatures, and in Congress to provide millions of women far better working conditions today

The working poor lose a great friend and advocate – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

On Tuesday I attended the funeral of Beth Shulman, a Washington, DC-based labor leader and a champion of the working poor. I didn’t know her well; I had met her a few times at various events, most recently at the Retirement USA conference in October. Shortly after the conference, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. As I listened to the eulogies at the funeral this week, I had a feeling of deep regret that I hadn’t taken the time to get to know Shulman better, for her life’s work — advocating for low-wage workers, including working for minimum wages, paid sick days, and paid family leave — closely tracks the work of NCL.

Shulman was a vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and in 2003 wrote the book, “The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans,” arguing that society pays scant attention to the people upon whom it depends every day.

She was a sought-after guest on news and talk shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, PBS NewsHour, CNN, ABC’s World News Tonight, and National Public Radio. Like Florence Kelley, NCL’s first inspirational leader, she kept the drumbeat going on behalf of the working poor.

In a Washington Post op-ed in 2004, she wrote:

If work does not work for millions of Americans, it undermines our most fundamental ideal: that if you work hard, you can support yourself and your family. …Consigning millions of Americans to dead-end, low-wage jobs endangers the notion of equal opportunity. A key to turning this around is understanding what made ‘good jobs’ good. There is nothing inherent in welding bumpers onto cars or manufacturing steel girders that makes those better jobs than caring for children or guarding office buildings. Workers organizing through unions, and the passage of social legislation, raised wages and created paid leave and retirement benefits in these initially ‘bad’ manufacturing jobs, changing them into good middle-class positions.

Shulman became assistant general counsel at the UFCW, which has a seat on the NCL Board of Directors, in 1976 and worked for the union until 2000, with her last 13 years there as international vice president and executive board member for the 1.4 million-member organization.

Like Florence Kelley, Shulman was a prolific writer and advocate. She traveled the country speaking, serving on boards and committees dedicated to improving the lives of the lowest paid workers in America and calling upon Americans to recognize the dignity of their work and how dependent we all are on workers who earn low wages and receive few, if any, benefits. Tragically, Shulman leaves an 11-year-old-son and grieving husband. They should both know that her contributions will not be forgotten and that she inspired many young people to work in the labor movement. I feel sure Shulman would have felt right at home with Florence Kelley and her progeny at the NCL. If America had more Beth Shulmans, we might finally provide decent wages and benefits to our working poor and treat them with far more dignity and respect. Now that’s a goal to work toward.

CBS investigates antibiotic use in livestock – National Consumers League

by Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

For the last two evenings, Katie Couric has presented a special CBS news investigation into the use of antibiotics in factory farms. For decades, farms around the country have routinely added antibiotics to animal feed, in order to cause animals to grow more quickly and to keep disease from rapidly spreading in the confinement pens that characterize factory farming.

The CBS investigation segment began with a focus on a group of farm workers who have experienced repeated cases of methicillin-resistant staph (MRSA), due to their jobs handling poultry. Unfortunately, these workers are not the exception – and poultry not the only problematic farmed animal. CBS referenced a University of Iowa study conducted last year, which found a new strain of MRSA in 70 percent of hogs and 64 percent of farm workers on antibiotic-using farms in Iowa and Western Illinois. These numbers present a stark contrast to antibiotic-free farms, where researchers did not find MRSA in any hogs or workers.

These findings present a problem, not only for farm workers, but for the broader population. Health officials at the FDA and elsewhere have started to express concern that overuse of antibiotics in factory farming will contribute to antibiotic-resistant infections, a rapidly increasing problem in the United States.

While watchdog groups have long called for an end to the use of antibiotics in factory farming, no government action has been taken on the issue, as of yet. The FDA, however, intends to change that, according to Joshua Sharfstein, FDA deputy director.

“We want to put in place measures to reduce inappropriate use and we want to see that those are working – in order to do that we have to have a good surveillance system,” Sharfstein told CBS’ Couric. “There’s no question that needs to be improved.”

Not everyone agrees that American factory farms overuse antibiotics. Liz Wagstrom, a veterinarian with the National Pork Board, told Couric that she believes that the majority of pork producers use antibiotics appropriately. Other beef and pork industry groups, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, have also made statements about the need for the current antibiotic use in factory farming.

One thing seems certain: this issue will not be resolved anytime soon. Interested consumers should stay tuned as the battle over antibiotics in American meat heats up, and those who are concerned about consuming antibiotic-tainted meat should look for the statements “no antibiotics administered” or “raised without antibiotics” on packaging at the grocery store.

Snowmageddon: Day Six observations – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Today is Wednesday, February 10 in Washington DC: Day Six of a week of unrelenting cold weather and powerful snow storms that rival anything we’ve seen in the last few decades – or century, even. The federal government and local school systems have shut down all week. That’s unthinkable for a power center like Washington, and it means no Congressional hearings, no Supreme Court arguments, no lobbyist meetings with Senators, no presidential press conferences. The only stories on television are about the weather: the white-out conditions, heavy snowfall and 40+ mile per hour winds. Kids and their parents are stir crazy, cooped up at home without access to the usual entertainments – Starbucks coffee, movies, museums, and in some cases cable television and heat!

Because of the hazards to workers trying to slog their way into the office, including our hardworking NCL staff, we told everyone to stay indoors, work from home where possible, and be safe. In fact, local municipalities have asked that people stay off the streets to allow their dedicated staff to do their jobs of clearing the roadways. Their safety too is important; they don’t want cars running into their trucks on the slippery streets or vice versa. The safety and well-being of workers everywhere should be the priority during this most unusual weather crisis.

I was out early shoveling but like Sisyphus (who was compelled to roll a huge rock up a steep hill, but before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down again, forcing him to begin again). To no avail, the wind blew the snow right back onto icy steps. I then slogged through the snow with my dog to deliver a promised homemade loaf of bread to friends who were hosting a gaggle of boys (my son included) who had camped out at their house for the night. My Welsh Terrier eventually refused to walk any further, stopping dead in his tracks in blowing winds. He was fed up with the mounds of snow he had to climb through. I carried him the rest of the way.

It’s interesting to see the most powerful city in the world brought to a standstill by weather that none of the three branches of government can control. Bipartisan bickering has halted, if only for a day or two, and the extremes of this city – the powerful and wealthy and poor and disenfranchised – all contend with inconveniences and danger ranging from digging out their cars to power outages. The only substantive debate seems to be whether the federal government should kick in to support local snow removal budgets in Maryland, Virginia, and the District. We have yet to see how that turns out.

No doubt all will be back to normal in a few days. The weatherman is predicting dry, 36-degree days ahead, but none of us will forget the week in February 2010 when snow storms closed the schools, closed the museums, and closed every branch of government in Washington DC.

‘Let’s Move’ to eliminate childhood obesity in a generation – National Consumers League

By Mimi Johnson, NCL Health Policy Associate

While the thought of ‘moving’ in the knee-deep snow outside here in the nation’s capitol might be a bit daunting at the moment, the First Lady just announced an initiative to get American youth active and to make childhood obesity a thing of the past in a generation.


Let’s Move seeks the support and resources of a community to reach and teach children about making healthier choices.  The initiative brings together families, schools, private industry, and government, in an effort to make an easier transition to healthier living.  NCL commends the First Lady and the many different sectors for reminding us to take responsibility for the health, well-being and future of a generation.

According to Michelle Obama, “it’s not about being 100 percent perfect, 100 percent of the time.”   Herself a fan of french fries and a good burger, the First Lady said, “there’s a place for cookies and ice cream, burgers and fries – that’s part of the fun of childhood.”  With one out of every three children overweight or obese, this has become a $150 billion a year issue that transcends politics.  As Obama reminded us all, we need to take the necessary steps today to ensure a generation of kids won’t be lost to this epidemic.

In conjunction with the launch of Let’s Move, the President issued a memorandum establishing the first-ever national task force on childhood obesity.  Through cross-department collaborations with the Departments of the Interior, Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Education, this bi-partisan effort is anchored by four pillars – nutrition information, increased physical education, easier access to healthy foods, and personal responsibility.

More specifically, some of the initiative’s elements include:

  • Empowering Consumers: By the end of this year, the Food and Drug Administration will have collected research, conducted dialogue with the industry, consumers and experts, and completed guidance for retailers and manufacturers to adopt new nutritionally sound and consumer friendly front-of-package labeling. This will put us on a path towards 65 million parents in America having easy access to the information needed to make healthy choices for their children. Many are already answering FDA’s call – including the nation’s beverage industry who are taking steps to provide clearly visible information about calories on the front of their products, as well as on vending machines and soda fountains.
  • A prescription for healthier living: The American Academy of Pediatrics, in collaboration with a broader medical community, will educate doctors and nurses across the country about obesity, ensure they regularly monitor your child’s Body Mass Index, provide counseling for healthy eating early on, and even write a prescription for parents laying out the simple things they can do to increase healthy eating and active play.
  • Next Generation Food Pyramid: To better help the public make healthier food and physical activity choices, the US Department of Agriculture plans to revamp the famous food pyramid  symbol and online interactive tools.  MyPyramid.gov is one of the most popular websites in the federal government and  a 2.0 version of the Web site will offer consumers a host of tools to  put the Dietary Guidelines into practice.
  • Empowering Change: The USDA has created the first-ever Food Atlas, an interactive database that maps components of healthy food environments down to the local level across the country.   This information can be used by all sectors – including parents, educators, government and businesses – to empower and create change across the country. It will include tools to identify the existence of food deserts, high incidences of diabetes, and other conditions in their communities.
  • Let’s Move start-up tools: This spring, Let’s Move will provide parents with simple and easy to use tips and toolkits to help get them moving. Check back for Let’s Move toolkits, including your interactive family contract to set your goals, pick your activities, and track your success.

Toyota recall saga reminiscent of ‘Groundhog Day’ – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Toyota’s current recall saga reminds me of the movie Groundhog Day – every day it’s the same thing, or a variation. First it was Toyota cars experiencing unintended acceleration caused by improper floor mats and sticky gas pedals, causing the Japanese automaker to issue a massive recall of millions of vehicles, stopping production, and bringing sales to a halt. Then, very quickly, the company announced it had a fix. So soon? (By the way, “product recall” is a misnomer that I find misleading because it suggests the product, in this case a Toyota car, will be retired or taken out of service permanently. That’s not what “recall” means. In this case, a consumer brings in his or her recalled car to a dealer, who fixes the problem at no charge. Recalls are mostly launched because of an inquiry and agreement with the company that it will fix the problem, prompted by consumer complaints about safety.)

I spent 10 years working on auto safety matters at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, and I’ve had a hard time sorting out what exactly is going on with Toyota, so I can only imagine how confusing the series of events, reactions, and news coverage must be for consumers who own Toyotas. Members of Congress have scheduled a hearing next week, and two members on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are asking Toyota officials to clarify what exactly happened leading up to this recall. U.S. Toyota President James Lentz apparently told committee staff last year that the company first learned of the sticky pedals in vehicles driven in Ireland and England in April and May of 2009. But Lentz went on the Today Show this week and claimed that Toyota first became aware of the sticking accelerator pedals in late October of 2009. House members – and consumers – want this inconsistency explained.

Sean Kane, who runs a group called Safety Research and Strategies, documented more than 2,000 instances of unintended acceleration involving Toyotas, resulting in more than 800 crashes and 19 deaths since 1999. Carol Mathews of Rockville complained in 2003 to NHTSA about her Lexus’ sudden acceleration into a tree. Apparently Mathew’s complaint launched an NHTSA investigation.

Meanwhile, to avoid problems with electronic throttles and sudden acceleration, some automakers have introduced brake override systems, which is an electronic adjustment that allows drivers to stop the car even if the throttle is stuck open. But Joan Claybrook, longtime President of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and a former NHTSA Administrator, asked a good question: “If it was just a floor mat problem, taking the floor mat out would correct the problem – so why are they putting the brake override in?” Toyota told the Washington Post that this was “an extra measure of confidence like other passive safety features on our vehicles.”  Confidence is likely the last thing many consumers are feeling right now about their Toyotas.

Toyota could have avoided the negative publicity by more being upfront and open about safety problems, letting consumers know it was the company’s intent to fix safety problems. Instead we got inconsistent statements, confusing information, and a rushed fix, which – for better or worse – has been met with skepticism about its effectiveness. There’s a lesson here for all companies: consumers will respect your quick attention to address any safety concerns you uncover and will work with you to get the problem fixed. Don’t bury your head in the sand or blame the consumer for safety problems, as some dealers did.

Toyota — which should agree to be organized by the United Auto Makers union — makes a solid and popular line of vehicles; however, its handling of this recall has been plagued by confusing information and new safety concerns daily. Consumers deserve better. We hope Toyota can deliver on its promises to fix the flaws in the newer models and slow down its production line — if even a little — so that it can return to being the automaker many Americans trust to turn out a great product.

Tylenol products being recalled for non-serious problems – National Consumers League

by Rebecca Burkholder, NCL Vice President for Health Policy

Consumers should be aware of a recent recall by McNeil Consumer Healthcare for several widely used over-the-counter drugs, including Tylenol, Motrin, and Benadryl products. The recall, done in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration, was issued after McNeil received complaints of an “unusual moldy, musty, or mildew-like” odor that, according to the company, was linked to a small number of “non-serious” stomach problems, including nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea.

If you have purchased these products (which include junior-strength Motrin, children’s Tylenol grape meltaway tablets, extra-strength Tylenol rapid release gelcaps, Motrin caplets, extra-strength Rolaids, St. Joseph Aspirin chewable orange tablets, and Benadryl allergy tablets) you should stop using the product and contact McNeil to find out how to get a refund or replacement. For more information and a full list of the recalled products, including lot number and UPC code (both found on the side of the bottle) click here. Any adverse reactions should be reported to the FDA Medwatch program. If you have medical questions, you should talk to your health care provider as soon as possible.

According to McNeil, the musty small was caused by small amounts of the chemical “2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA).”  The chemical is applied to wood pallets used to transport and store packaging materials for the recalled products. The company reported that “the health effects of this chemical have not been well studied, but no serious events have been documented in the medical literature.”

Remember that any time you suspect something is wrong with a medication you are taking (smell, look, or taste) you should contact the FDA, and, if it’s a prescription medication, the pharmacist who sold it to you. You should also contact your health care provider if you have any questions.

Love your heart during American Heart Month – National Consumers League

February is American Heart Month and this Friday, February 5, we remind everyone to wear red to support women’s heart disease awareness. Heart disease is the number one killer of women each year, and one American dies every minute from a heart attack. By taking a few simple steps, you can reduce your risk of developing heart disease.

The President, in a proclamation issued earlier this week, reminds us that while costly and devastating, heart disease can largely be prevented. He suggests we protect our families from the disease by taking ‘responsibility for our health and that of our children – including exercising regularlymaintaining a healthy dietavoiding tobacco, and raising our children to spend more time playing outside.’

Remind your friends and family to love their heart.

Health care reform: good for consumers and America – National Consumers League

The lack of comprehensive health care coverage is America’s albatross – it makes our businesses less competitive and our workers less healthy. We need to put partisan concerns aside and work NOW to ensure that the system is reformed. The cost of doing nothing is unthinkable.

American families are paying about $15,000 a year for health care, twice as much as we did twenty years ago, and we pay $6,500 more for health care than any other industrialized country in the world. Yet despite these high costs we have poorer health outcomes.

We need to address why we are overpaying for care that is not making us healthier. Health reform, as proposed in several current bills in Congress, will move us towards greater accountability, efficiency, accessibility, transparency, and quality. It is essential that everyone have access to affordable health care or the system will remain broken.

For consumers, health reform will translate into choice – with a greater number of options available, including keeping and supplementing your own insurance, at more affordable and competitive prices. Reform will also make it easier to compare and understand the true costs and benefits of plans. As consumers and employees, we can make choices what will help push for health insurance and benefits that are competitive, innovative, and cost-contained.

With unemployment nearing 10 percent, many Americans have lost their employer-based coverage. Further, of the nearly 50 million uninsured, close to 80 percent are working Americans. It is imperative that we not leave our most vulnerable citizens out in the cold, which is why health reform will only be effective if everyone is covered.

Experts project that families will pay $10,000 more annually on medical costs by 2016 if we DON’T fix the system Health care coverage for all Americans is a moral imperative that must not be allowed to fall victim to partisan politics.

Mobile commerce: what’s all the buzz? – National Consumers League

You may have seen advertisements for things you can purchase using your wireless phone, such as jokes or ring tones. This new form of shopping, called mobile commerce, lets consumers order products or services using their phones or personal digital assistants (PDAs), with the charges usually appearing on their next wireless bill. NCL’s got the latest on how mobile commerce works and what to watch out for.

How mobile commerce works

Products and services may be offered on either a per-item or an ongoing subscription basis. It’s important to understand that the price and terms of the offer are set by the company selling the product or service, not by your wireless service provider.

Let’s say an advertisement for a ringtone catches your eye online or on TV. This could be a chart-topping musical hit, a popular television theme tune or a sound effect. You are usually provided what is called a “short-code” (Example: Hip1234). To make a purchase, you typically send a text message from your wireless phone to the seller at the number shown in the advertisement and type in the short-code for the ringtone you’ve chosen. The seller sends instructions for downloading the ringtone to your phone, and the corresponding charge will appear on your next wireless bill.

If the offer is for a single ringtone, you will be charged once; if it is a subscription package that enables you to download up to a certain number of ringtones in a specific time period, there may be monthly charges on your wireless bill.

Alternatively, you might pre-arrange to have the charges for products or services you’re going to purchase billed to a credit card or debited from a bank account or prepaid account.

Unfortunately, some sellers don’t make the cost or terms of their offers clear or use good procedures to ensure that consumers are only charged for purchases they agreed to make. Sometimes products or services advertised as “free” may require a subscription. Read advertisements and the terms of sale carefully.

Before you make a purchase, it’s important to know…

  • Exactly what products or services you’re buying
  • Whether it is a one-time purchase or an ongoing subscription
  • The full cost, and how and when you will be billed
  • Whether you can cancel, and the terms of any cancellation policy
  • How to reach the seller in case there is a problem – when signing up, make sure the seller has an 800 number

If you are purchasing music or other downloads, it’s a good idea to make sure you know whether it will work on your mobile device. If it turns out your phone can’t handle the download, some sellers may not offer a refund, so be sure to check to ensure compatibility with your particular phone or PDA before signing up or downloading.

It is also important to know the contract terms of your wireless service provider. Some add charges for downloading content or sending / receiving text messages.

Kids and mobile commerce: set rules

Many parents allow their children to carry a wireless phone to make communicating easier, especially in case of an emergency. Some have found out the hard way, however, that it’s easy for kids to rack up hefty phone bills with text messages or other purchases. Children may make mobile commerce transactions without understanding the charges or asking for parental permission.

Parents should set firm rules for what their kids are allowed to purchase and monitor their accounts closely. Parents may also have the option to block their children from purchasing certain types of content. Ask your wireless provider and companies that sell products and services through mobile commerce what controls are available to you and how they work. Remember, you may be held responsible to pay for purchases billed to your account. For the same reason, don’t lend your mobile device to others to use.

Consumers should choose vendors that…

  • Provide clear and complete information about their offers in their advertisements, including the costs and whether they are one-time purchases or subscriptions
  • Send a text “welcome message” confirming the purchase, the cost, and the terms of sale
  • Provide clear instructions for downloading content
  • Provide multiple protections to ensure only those consumers who agreed to buy products services are billed for them
  • Offer a simple, uncomplicated method to end subscriptions without further obligation
  • Have 800 numbers and live operators available to assist consumers with technical problems and billing questions
  • Provide refunds in the event that children fail to seek parental permission to make purchases
  • Respect your privacy and won’t send you offers you didn’t request

Review your credit card and wireless bills carefully. If you find any questionable charges for mobile commerce transactions, call the number shown for billing inquiries and complaints (or, if you get your bills online, you may see an email or Web site address to use for that purpose). Be sure to notify the company that billed you on behalf of the seller – your wireless service provider or credit card company – if you are contesting the charges, and pay the rest of your bill on time. If you are unable to resolve the problem contact your state or local consumer protection agency or the local Better Business Bureau for help. You can also report a problem to the Federal Trade Commission, www.ftc.gov, (877) 382-4357.