By Ralph Nader
Technology is advancing at a rapid pace. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, high-speed internet, high-definition screens, GPS devices, and other innovations have markedly changed the way many Americans spend their time. Think of all the tools and devices that have developed in the past decade alone that make it easier to find travel information, communicate, shop for deals, or choose entertainment. The list grows longer every day. But what about new tools for social justice — tools for bringing people together to defend their rights against increasingly powerful corporate lobbies. Despite all the advances in technological wizardry, it’s still difficult to bring people together behind common causes that benefit the majority or defend the aggrieved.
Many years ago, long before Twitter and Facebook and smartphones, I first recommended the creation of Citizen Utility Boards (CUBs) to fight rising utility bill rates. In short, this concept would have states passing a law to require utilities to include inserts inside bill mailings several times a year inviting residential customers to band together and pay a small membership fee. Funded by these voluntary contributions, CUBs would hire a fulltime staff of consumer lawyers, accountants and organizers to advance ratepayer interests before the monopolistic electric, telephone, gas and water utility companies, utility rate commissions and state legislatures. This “piggybacking” on state mailings provides a convenient way for the citizens to organize a substantial membership organization. The beauty of the CUB concept is that, as a voluntary group, it costs taxpayers nothing — CUBs do not receive any government or utility funding. It is non-bureaucratic, because no new government personnel or procedures are needed. It enhances civic participation, because the CUB depends for its success on the energy and vision of its members. And it counters the massive inequities of power and information that afflict consumers in their dealings with misbehaving big business.
In 1983, the Illinois General Assembly passed the CUB Act, which formed the Illinois CUB. (See one of the original Illinois CUB inserts here) The results are quite telling. In 1993, $1.3 billion was refunded to customers after the Illinois CUB caught the Commonwealth Edison electric company severely overcharging customers. In 2006, the Illinois CUB discovered again that People’s Energy used an illegal profit-sharing deal with the Enron Corporation to overcharge customers in the winter of 2000-2001. In that instance, $196 million was refunded to customers. Not bad for a CUB with an annual budget under $1 million. (Visit the website for the Illinois CUB for more information on their work and accomplishments.)
History has shown the CUB model to be highly effective in protecting the rights of consumers, but unfortunately, it was largely defanged by a split Supreme Court decision in 1986, holding that a corporation has the First Amendment right to not “carry messages inconsistent with its views.” Leading conservative Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist disagreed with the decision. He wrote: “Extension of the individual freedom of conscience decisions to business corporations strains the rationale of these cases beyond the breaking point. To ascribe to such artificial entities an ‘intellect’ or ‘mind’ for freedom of conscience purposes is to confuse metaphor with reality.”
While this decision was a major blow, it is still possible to set up CUBs or similar advocacy groups that would not violate the Supreme Court’s ruling. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced an amendment to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform bill in 2010 to create a financial consumers association to defend against credit card and mortgage abuses in addition to other fine print contract schemes (see faircontracts.org) based on the CUB model. Senator Schumer’s amendment was not included in the final bill, however.
Imagine how such a model could be applied to protect the interests of health care consumers. What about in the area of auto safety? Banking? Then there are taxes — a taxpayer accountability group could advocate for tax fairness and efficiency and to cut wasteful spending. Going further, it would be easy to apply the model to the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.
I first introduced the CUB idea back in 1974. As technology has evolved, so should our expectations about how Congress and state legislatures can advance civic values and consumer interests by facilitating people banding together in effective citizen groups.
One thing is certain. The American people must have organized voices to help consumer and citizen power counter the forces of concentrated, profit-driven big corporations.