Nader's Watchdogs Have Sharp Teeth

You've got to hand it to Ralph Nader. While other politicians may bow to the shifting winds of public opinion, he has been steadfastly preaching the same antibusiness gospel for more than three decades. And although Nader's message fell out of fashion during the 1980s and most of the '90s, it is clearly back in style. Not only is his Green Party Presidential campaign faring better than expected, but he's also putting heat on Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore to join the business-bashing rhetoric.

Sitting in his rundown campaign headquarters in Washington (decorated with a T-shirt on the wall that reads: ''You can have democracy. Or you can have corporate control. But you can't have both''), the 66-year-old Nader has little trouble diagnosing the source of his success. ''When you give commercial interests in a society too much power,'' he says, ''they run roughshod over other values, whether it's health, safety, protection of childhood, environment, [or] access to justice.'' He derides Gore's attempt to jump on the anticorporate bandwagon as ''phony.''

Of course, nobody expects Ralph Nader to be America's next President. But that doesn't mean his campaign against Corporate America is going to die the moment the election is over. Through the years, Nader has systematically built a network of more than 30 public interest groups that are devoted to battling the business community, including Public Citizen, the Center for Auto Safety, the Consumer Project on Technology, the Aviation Consumer Action Project, Essential Action, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Pension Rights Center (table).

TRADITIONAL. Together, this loose federation of independent watchdog groups constitutes something of an anticorporate conglomerate. While the media are focusing on the dreadlocked collegiate street protesters, Nader's empire uses traditional methods to pursue much the same agenda. It lobbies Congress, holds policy seminars, and produces position papers on a bewildering array of issues, including everything from antitrust to tobacco regulation to trade to energy policy. Over the years, Nader's direct involvement with the various groups has increasingly declined--to the extent that he now has no official titles or responsibilities at most of them. But insiders say that, until the campaign, he played a key role in formulating policy at the majority of the organizations.

One of the most important ways in which the groups in Nader's network fan the business backlash is by helping small grassroots organizations that are trying to take on corporate Goliaths. The Pension Rights Center (PRC), for example, advised a coalition of IBM employees opposed to the company's attempt to convert their pensions into so-called cash-balance plans. Under these types of pensions, older employees typically earn less than they would under traditional plans. After suffering a big public relations hit, IBM last September partially caved in and decided to let 35,000 additional employees retain their old benefits. Now, employees at AT&T, Citibank, and elsewhere are fighting their companies' cash-balance plans. The PRC is lobbying for legislation allowing veteran workers to retain their old benefits.

To be sure, Naderite groups frequently espouse fringe views and often are outmuscled by better-financed corporate opponents. But they do have their share of victories. Washington's Consumer Project on Technology, for example, played a key role in getting President Clinton to sign an executive order in May allowing African countries to manufacture and import generic versions of AIDS drugs without facing trade sanctions. The measure, which Clinton originally opposed, was heavily attacked by the U.S. pharmaceutical industry out of concern that it would rob them of sales and weaken their intellectual-property rights. According to one former lobbyist at a trade association that fought the measure, the Consumer Project on Technology ''was very influential'' in triggering the White House turnaround.

Aware that he is a lightning rod for criticism, Nader does not go out of his way to boast about the many public interest groups he has created. But long after this election is over and he has retired from public life, they could very well turn out to be his most important legacy.

By Mike France in Washington

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