For consumers, there is one issue that can summarize their concerns for the coming year: inflation, and how to lessen its impact.
"Inflation is the No. 1 concern," according to a recent survey of the membership of the National Consumers League, and, reading the handwriting on the wall, the league therefore decided to make "inflation fighting ... a central component of all NCL's legislative, educational and research activities."
The league is not alone among consumer groups worried about infltion. "We see an increasing sensitivity to inflation by consumers," said Kathleen O'Reilly, president of the Consumer Federation of America. "And since there were a number of candidates who ran for Congress on pro-consumer platforms, we have a multiple of issues involving inflation on which they can prove their sincerity."
But while he thinks inflation is high on the consumer's mind, Ralph Nader has a different, though possibly related target for his 1979 efforts: major corporations.
"The real number one issue is giant corporations that are monoplizing markets, buying governments and opposing all assertion of consumer rights," Nader says.
"I'm going to be working more in the private sector," he added. "You have to work with forces that aren't for sale. When you work with Congress, you are working with low-level merchandise in a pawn shop."
Despite Nader's determination of value though, Congress will still be wooed by the Consumer Federation and the Consumers League in the legislative areas they deem important.
"In the health area, we will be working on the rewrite of the drug bill and on the Clinical Lab Improvement Act -- which prohibits kickbacks in the $12 billion clinical laboratory business," said CFA's O'Reilly. "Health-related services represent a large segment of a consumerhs budget."
The Consumers League is pushing hard for national health insurance as a means to combat the inflationary impact of health care. In a recent statement, league president Sandra Willett said the immediate and long-range cost controls of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's proposed health insurance legislation "will put the brakes on medical costs, which have been rising more than 50 percent faster than the price of necessities."
The confederation and the league are also pushing no-fault insurance, public participation legislation that would enhance government spending on consumer particiapation at agency proceedings, and efforts to overturn a Supreme Court decision prohibiting consumers from filing suit directly against a company involved in price-fixing.
Another possible cause of iflation that will be attackedby the consumer movement in the coming year is trucking regulation. "Surface transportation regulatory reform," O'Reilly says, "could bring down the cost of food and other commodities, more than most consumers realize."
As for Nader and his various splinter groups, besides action in the areas of strengthening class action sutis, providing public participation intervenor funding, he plans to push for more health and safety regulation.
And in a ifferent arena, he plans to attack general "wAste and corruption," through a push on corporate crime. Nader also plans to call for national standards for corporations that would end the advantages enjoyed by many companies headquartered in Delaware and Nevada, states which draw corporations to be chartered there by offering favorable business conditions.
"We must go after big business," Nader says. "The consumer movement has go to learn that the principal responsibility for the plight of consumers is on the shoulders of big business, not ernment is presently a prisoner of big capital and labor.
White House consumer advocate Esther Peterson has been given sharply increased policy authority, incuding of Health, Education and Welfare's Office of Consumer Affairs. Peterson has, at least, been able to get in her opinion on what the impact of potential White House actions would be on consumers -- before the action istaken.
In the regulatory area, there have also been gains for consumer interests. At the Ocnsumer Product Safety Commission, for example, Susan King has distinguished herself in her role as the new chairwoman by bringing organization and calm to what had been a chaotic and troubled agency on the brink of being thrown to the wolves by the Carter administration.
Meanwhile the Federal Trade Commission under Michael Pertschuk has become an aggressive -- some say too aggressive -- consumer advocate in recent years, and at least some fruits of much of that work are expected this year in the form of agnecy actions in such areas as antitrust and advertising for professionals ervices.
And the National highway Traffic Safety Administration succeeded, finally, in getting the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. to recall its reportedly dangerous 500-series steel-belted radial tires. What is significant about that recall -- the largest product recall in history -- is that it came solely as the result of cosnsumer complaints about the tire, and the tenacity of the Nader-affiliated Center for Auto Safety and its executive director, Clarence Ditlow.
But perhaps the most important continuing trend in the business of consumer advocacy has been the increasing impact of local consumer organizations. Consumer actibism in such areas as utility rate setting, tenants' rights and food purchasing is on the upswing.