Saturday, December 13, 2014

Caveat emptor and labor struggles: the odd history of Consumers Research

Wander around long enough, and you're bound to find some real ironies revealed not by commemorative plaques or statues, but in conversations you have along the way. For instance, our visit to the Bread Lock Museum led to a local resident who told us about a 1935 labor strike that grew violent in the outskirts of Washington, Warren County. Rather than the typical manual labor action against factory management, it pitted a consumer advocacy watchdog against researchers and scientists devoted to product safety.

When I checked further, I discovered that management who had previously voiced, in the words of the WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey, "caustic criticism of employers who showed hostility to organized labor," was all too willing to halt the creation of a union when it got in the way of his own goals.

Who was this union-resistant business entity, why had its leaders made the about-face, and why did all of this happen in the foothills of Warren County? To find out, we need to go back to nine years before the strike, and the birth of the consumer advocacy movement.

New York resident Frederick J. Schlink had worked at the U.S. Bureau of Standards, the federal agency charged with testing products to help government procurement entities get the best buys and most effective products. Frustrated by the dubious claims advertisers made to the public, Schlink, with a coauthor, wrote the book Your Money's Worth in 1926 to raise public awareness of false advertising and inferior manufacturing processes, and to call for the creation of an independent testing organization to protect and educate consumers.

Finding a receptive audience, Schlink founded the Consumers' Club and published the Consumers' Club Commodity List, which ranked products by quality and value. Rather than testing the products themselves, Schlink and his colleagues drew their information from assessments made by trusted sources like the Bureau of Standards and the American Medical Association.

By 1929, the renamed Consumers Research was nearly 100 employees strong, publishing three different periodicals from its New York City offices. They'd begun testing some of the products they reported on, but many reviews were still based on the work of outside laboratories. The publications drew a small but ardent subscriber base, prompting Schlink to dream that the movement could take on enough momentum to spawn a political party and even a federal Department of the Consumer.

Growth, however, would depend on the organization's ability to test products on its own, free of any financial indebtedness to advertisers or others who might attempt to influence product ratings. Unable to attract a major donor for the consumer foundation he sought to endow, Schlink relied on donations from club members and the dramatic expansion of subscribers to the list. With money an issue as the Depression hit and wore on, he came up with an idea that's been conceived by countless business leaders since: move the entire operation out of the city. Not only would a rural location be less expensive, it would offer more space for research labs, and a lower cost of living would justify lower salaries.

The Consumers Research board of directors considered several locations before Schlink purchased the former Florey Piano factory in Washington. He felt that the town, with its all-American culture, was the ideal example of the community that the average consumer called home.

Employees and board members, many of them city natives, were aghast. Considering the relative isolation of life outside cities at the time, it's not surprising: '30's era transportation and communications were far from the standard we enjoy today, and while Washington was a well-developed town, it lacked the amenities of Manhattan. One Consumers Research board member is said to have noted that he'd prefer suicide to living in a small town.

Nonetheless, many of the workers, committed to the consumer advocacy movement, made the move with Schlink and his management team. Many didn't last long in the rural environment and returned to New York, but others continued with the organization as it moved to larger quarters just outside town.

Over the years that followed, several of those who stayed grew increasingly discontented over pay, job security and working conditions. Finding Schlink to be less than open to their input, they organize a union to negotiate with management. It wasn't a surprising move, considering that many Consumers Research employees were activists, drawn to the company by its principled stand on behalf of the average American and its reputation as a haven for progressives.

When they approached the board for a meeting to discuss their concerns, the newly formed union was turned away, its three organizers fired. Board members who'd agreed to talk with the union were dismissed from their duties, too. Seeing no other way, more than 40 employees walked off the job on September 4, 1935, seeking protection against being fired on management's whim, the dismissal of two labor-unfriendly board members, reinstatement of the fired union members and a minimum weekly wage of $15.

Hostilities grew quickly, as a bus carrying replacement workers was stoned by strikers on September 10 and one of the opposing board members was assaulted. Violence escalated over the following days until a riot started on October 15. As The WPA Guide described it:

"Armed guards patrolled the acreage about the main building... a constable mounted on a farm horse rode into a crowd of several hundred strikers and sympathizers from local unions assembled on the road. His act provoked a riot that lasted for hours. The crowd surged through the ropes, showering the buildings with stones; automobiles were overturned and wrecked. By nightfall the guards were reinforced by hastily deputized farmers, armed with shotguns and rifles. ... Guns blazed as the deputized farmhands chased university graduates up and down the country lane... Strikebreakers barricaded within the building were evacuated in moving vans, with an escort of farmers. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured."

The strikers' efforts became a cause celebre in New York, with more than 1000 people attending a meeting led by sympathetic Consumers Research board members and journalist Heywood Broun. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, American Civil Liberties Union co-founder Roger Baldwin and others attempted to talk with management on behalf of the strikers but were unsuccessful. It seems that some CR board members could not be dissuaded, as they believed the union was under Communist Party influence. And others couldn't reconcile the fact that the very people they needed to make the consumer movement succeed -- independent thinking professionals with integrity -- would want to have some say in their own working conditions.

Ultimately, the National Labor Relations Board heard from both sides, ruling for the workers. Consumers Research appealed the ruling and lost again but ignored the NLRB's decision. The strike ended on January 13, 1936. Many of the dissenting workers, along with two former board members, started Consumers Union, the testing and research organization that publishes the influential and highly-respected Consumer Reports.

The two organizations continue to provide useful and timely information to their subscribers, but their fates differ sharply. While Consumer Reports' subscriptions and testing labs grew, Consumers Research lost both paying supporters and influence. Schlink continued to operate the labs on Bowerstown Road in Washington until 1981, when he sold the operation to a conservative radio personality. The laboratories closed two years later as the organization moved from testing to focusing on the impact of legislation and regulation on consumers.

I tried to find the building on a recent trip to Washington but found no evidence of it on Bowerstown Road. The only evidence you'll find of a labor dispute, or of the useful work of Consumers Research, that you'll find in locally is in the memories of old timers and local historians.

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