Consumers Union

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Consumers Union was formed in New York in 1936 following a dispute between the employees and directors of Consumers' Research, a consumer advocacy organization. Dewey Palmer and Arthur Kallet, former members of the board of directors of Consumers' Research, helped form Consumers Union. Other board members of the new organization, including its president, Colston Warne, had worked at Consumers' Research or had supported it.

Consumers' Research subsequently charged that members of the new organization were supporters of the Communist Party. One result of the attacks was that the primary publication of Consumers Union, Consumer Reports, was sometimes banned from newsstands and public schools. In 1940, the House Un-American Activities Committee issued a report that branded Consumers Union as a subversive organization. The stigma remained until 1954, when the organization was removed from the blacklist.

Socialist principles

Early on, Consumers Union had become the major competitor of Consumers' Research. Further, the directors of Consumers Union had decided to run the organization on socialist principles, a practice opposed by members of Consumers' Research. Indeed, everyone at Consumers Union earned the same salary until 1937.

Early issues of Consumer Reports contained articles about health issues, labor problems (e.g., long hours and low salaries), utilities' uneven quality of service and cooperative buying plans, among other topics, as well as the results of tests of products as disparate as food, pencils, shirts, soap, shoes, silk stockings and tissue paper.

In general, articles focused on the need for legislation to protect consumers from unethical business practices. When the organization shifted its focus to political issues in the late 1930s, however, several members of the board of directors resigned.

They charged that testing was assuming a secondary role, as articles in Consumer Reports began increasingly to examine the working conditions under which goods were made. Product quality ratings were supplemented with evaluations of manufacturers' labor practices.

In order to reinstate product evaluation as the first priority, in 1940 the organization designed its own testing laboratory. As a consequence, the tests became more scientific and the product information and ratings more reliable.

By this time, Consumer Reports had 85,000 subscribers, most of them members of the middle class. Consumer Reports was not always popular with other media. In fact, a number of major newspaper and magazine publishers refused to sell space to the organization because they regarded product testing as an attack on manufacturers.

During World War II, Consumers Union also published Bread & Butter, a newsletter dealing with wartime problems such as price controls and housing shortages. The staff of the organization shrank when employees were drafted; for a time, tests once again were conducted by outside firms.

Increasing demand for product information

When the war ended and the military was demobilized, men and women who had served in the armed forces returned home and the demand for goods increased. There was also an increased demand for accurate information about products, and the number of subscribers to Consumer Reports more than quadrupled in five years, from about 90,000 in 1945 to more than 400,000 by 1950.

The testing program was expanded in the late 1940s under the direction of Morris Kaplan, a chemist, who created separate departments for the testing of appliances, electronics and foods, among other products. The organization also changed its political orientation as its board became more conservative politically. In addition, the magazine came to focus more on products and less on labor and political issues. In 1957, Mr. Kallet left the organization.

By the late 1950s, manufacturers began to realize that more and more consumers were reading reports about their products in Consumer Reports. If the ratings were good, it helped sell their products. If the ratings were poor, sales could suffer. Manufacturers sometimes responded to poor reviews by improving the product.

By 1960, the circulation of Consumer Reports had increased to 800,000. Twenty years later, the magazine's circulation was more than 2 million; by the late 1990s, it stood at more than 4 million.

At the dawn of the 21st century, Consumers Union's reports appeared in newspapers, on radio and TV, as well as in its magazine, newsletters books and a children's magazine. The organization has advocacy offices in Washington, San Francisco and Austin, Texas. Advocates testify before legislative and regulatory bodies on behalf of consumers, and the organization established the Consumer Policy Institute to promote consumer interests.

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