By Ralph Nader
They didn’t pontificate or boast. They just improved the health, safety, and economic conditions for the American people. The Washington Post called them Nader’s Raiders – law, medical, graduate, undergraduate, and even high school students came to Washington between 1969 and 1973 to join with me in important drives for justice.
The first group came in 1969 to expose and reform the moribund Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that had turned its back on consumers. The Nader Report on the Federal Trade Commission, by Edward F. Cox, Robert C. Fellmeth, and John E. Schulz (Grove Press), prodded the Nixon Administration to invite the American Bar Association (ABA) to examine its findings. The ABA report agreed with them. The FTC was awakened from its slumber with new leadership.
Then came about a dozen law students for what turned out to be an orientation meeting in the summer of 1970 in a spare suite of offices across from the bustling Washington Post headquarters. They sat around me as I offered one subject of injustice after another for their choosing. Some who selected their work that summer and the following summer, stayed at it for 40 to 50 years!
Robert Vaughn picked federal civil service reform. He became a national authority on the rights of governmental employees, including pressing for their protected freedom to whistleblow on fraudulent or coercive conditions at federal agencies flowing from inside corruption or maltreatment and from the outside grip of corporate lobbyists and contractors. Early in his career he wrote “The Spoiled System: A Call for Civil Service Reform” (1975) and continued to advance the cause of public servants and whistleblowers as a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
There was David Zwick who chose reducing water pollution as his mission. His book “Water Wasteland” (1972) and the meticulous work on the Clean Water Act legislation of 1972 started his 45-year career as a national leader on water pollution all over the country. His group, Clean Water Action, canvassed tens of millions of homes and worked at all levels – local, state, and national.
There were thoughtful and compassionate high school seniors at the Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut, interested in doing something about nursing home abuses. Led by their intrepid classmate Claire Townsend, and a guiding teacher, they came to Washington, poured through government inspection records, interviewed scores of knowledgeable people, and wrote the book “Old Age: The Last Segregation” (1971). They also testified before the Senate and House, amidst widespread media coverage. Long overdue changes in nursing homes came out of the forces they put into motion.
Clarence Ditlow – the low-key lawyer and engineer, was drawn to auto safety. Chances are you’ve had your defective motor vehicles recalled because of this tenacious auto industry watchdog, who headed the Center for Auto Safety from 1976 to 2016. At his passing, the leading trade journal, Automotive News editorialized about his inimitable contributions to auto safety in their encomium.
Whether it was Sam Simon on the broadcasting TV and radio industry, Tom Stanton on tax and housing policy, Karen Sheldon on the environment, Joseph Page and Gary Sellers on workplace health/safety, Chris White on the FTC, Karen Ferguson on pension rights, Joan Claybrook on Congress and auto safety, Robert Fellmeth on public land policy and corporate law enforcement, Dr. Sid Wolfe on the FDA, Mark Green on Congress and corporate monopolies, Harrison Wellford on pesticides and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, two undergraduate engineering students – James Bruce, and John Draper, (authors of “Crash Safety in General Aviation Aircraft” dealing with improving general aviation aircraft safety, James Fallows (author of “The Water Lords” a book on the Savannah River pollution, John Esposito on air pollution and the Clean Air Act of (1972), changes occurred, public awareness enlarged, reporters drawn to new or enlarged beats and lawmakers placed on alert.
Institutions were also established by these young people around the country. The superb organizer Donald K. Ross helped organize student PIRGs nationwide and then went on to head The New York PIRG. The Children’s Advocacy Center was launched in San Diego with state and national impact by law Professor, litigator, and author Robert Fellmeth. Jonathan Rowe worked on tax policy and then worked on redefining the yardsticks for economic progress as if all people matter, and helped start initiatives in that spreading school of thought.
There were others who also had higher estimates of their own significance and turned down lucrative job offers in order to “do justice.” The sheer stamina over the decades of many of these advocates for a just society should have provoked civic biographies, movies, and documentaries and opened up a motivating practice of civic heroism for younger Americans to wish to emulate.
On further contemplation, one might have asked the question “why in that moment of history were such elevations of civic advocacy so relatively successful?” The fundamental legislation, for example, framing our country’s response to environmental violence and cost, has never been repeated since.
A forthcoming book of recollections by the first two years of some “Nader’s Raiders” – many of them still actively furthering their chosen causes of 1970-1971 – will shed some light on this intriguing and significant history. Large corporations renew themselves for their myopic, avaricious drives. Why can’t the civic community more auspiciously bring the qualities of civic commitment and resourcefulness from today’s youngsters, who seek a better world, but keep saying they do not know what to do?
There are plenty of opportunities to break new ground, to turn Congress around and free it from its corporate paymasters, to define your future work as full-time citizens building a deep democracy resilient against the cruel winds of approaching autocratic storms. If you are interested in this kind of work send your resumes and chosen areas of interest to [email protected]. But first read Citizen Action and Other Big Ideas by David Bollier, Public Citizen Sentinel for Democracy, or Civics for Democracy: A Journey for Teachers and Students, by Katherine Isaac about how, together with the valiant civil rights and anti-war movements and corporate justice advocates operated, persevered and, to some lasting degree, prevailed so that you can stand on their shoulders.