FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Let the PIRGs Begin!

Ask a Washington, DC taxi driver about student activism in the United States and you will likely hear about student involvement in the Civil Rights movement and student opposition to the war in Vietnam. If you push a bit, the driver may mention Earth Day.

Don’t blame the driver for providing you with a snapshot of activism that only deals with the 60s. When it comes to students, the media lens is narrow. It focuses on mega events. And it focuses on the zany: swallowing goldfish in the 50s, Nehru jackets in the 60s, streaking in the 70s, toga parties in the 80s, the Macarena in the 90s and so it goes. News of student initiatives after the early 70s barely captures the tip of the iceberg. Just below the surface, however, there is a vibrant and enduring student movement.

One of the shining examples of this student movement is the student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs). With the help of our organizers, this campus-based phenomenon that started in 1970 has grown broader and deeper on campuses throughout the country. Students in Oregon and Minnesota launched the first PIRGs. After the initial success in these two pioneering states, attorney and organizer Donald Ross and I wrote a book titled: Action for a Change: A Students Manual for Public Interest Organizing. this

This 1971 how-to blueprint helped students in other states organize PIRGs. Today they operate in 29 states nationwide ­ from California to New York, in small states like Vermont and in other states as diverse as New Jersey and Colorado.

Each local PIRG is financed and controlled by students, but guided by a professional staff of attorneys, scientists, organizers and others. Core funding comes from modest annual fees of $5 to $10 automatically billed to all students on campuses who approve a campus PIRG by a majority vote. Once underway, PIRGs work on local, statewide and national issues ranging from improving the quality of subway service in New York City, to making polluters pay for their toxic waste dumps, to reducing fees for banking services, to promoting renewable energy policies. PIRGs are non-partisan, non-ideological, no-nonsense groups that make good things happen with creative approaches and hard work.

In 1983, the state PIRGs banded together and created a national lobbying office and a full time staff of advocates working with the state PIRGs on environmental issues such as preserving the Arctic wilderness, protection of forests, and reversing global warming. The PIRG consumer agenda is as broad as the marketplace. It includes challenging the production of genetically modified food, concentration of media ownership, and safeguarding privacy as well as advocating laws to limit the potential of identity theft. US PIRG also works to prevent fraud and gouging of consumer borrowers and depositors.

And, the PIRG democracy initiatives range from campaign finance reform, to ballot access laws that provide equal access to all political parties, to proportional representation, to open access to government information.

Doug Phelps, a student activist in the 60s and a graduate of Harvard Law School, is the chair of the State PIRGS. Phelps says for, “over three decades in dozens of states on many issues – there is a common thread: research, organizing and advocacy. In each case, state PIRGs began by investigating the problems at hand, building support for concrete solutions among the public, and then persistently advocating change.”

Gene Karpinski, the Executive Director of USPIRG, notes that, “beyond the lobbying, litigation and investigative reports, the PIRGs teach students about the role they can and should have in a democracy.” And, the role is indeed significant.

This country has more problems than it should tolerate and more solutions than it uses. Few societies in the course of human history have faced such a situation: most are in the fires without the water to squelch them. Our society has the resources and the skills to keep injustice at bay and to elevate the human condition to a state of enduring compassion and creative fulfillment. How we go about using the resources and skills has consequences which extend beyond our national borders to all the earth’s people. These words ring as true today as they did in 1971.

PIRGs have taught students that they can “fight city hall” and that they can win important victories for our society. They have published hundreds of groundbreaking reports and useful guides, helped pass scores of important laws in their state legislatures, called media attention to environmental threats and stopped consumer abuses by corporations. But the work of building and improving our society must continue. The injustices of tomorrow will require the next generation of student activists to rise to the challenge of building a more just and humane society. And just as I said in 1971, “The problems of the present and the risks of the future are deep and plain. But let it not be said that this generation refused to give up so little in order to achieve so much.”

For more information on the PIRGs visit:
http://uspirg.org/ and http://www.pirg.org/

 

 

 

More articles by:

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled Again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
Lawrence Ware
All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma
Franklin Lamb
Tehran’s Syria: Lebanon Colonization Project is Collapsing
Donny Swanson
Janus v. AFSCME: What’s It All About?
Will Podmore
Brexit and the Windrush Britons
Brian Saady
Boehner’s Marijuana Lobbying is Symptomatic of Special-Interest Problem
Julian Vigo
Google’s Delisting and Censorship of Information
Patrick Walker
Political Dynamite: Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for a People’s Party
Fred Gardner
Medical Board to MDs: Emphasize Dangers of Marijuana
Rob Seimetz
We Must Stand In Solidarity With Eric Reid
Missy Comley Beattie
Remembering Barbara Bush
Wim Laven
Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate
Thomas Knapp
Freedom is Winning in the Encryption Arms Race
Mir Alikhan
There Won’t be Peace in Afghanistan Until There’s Peace in Kashmir
Robert Koehler
Playing War in Syria
Tamara Pearson
US Shootings: Gun Industry Killing More People Overseas
John Feffer
Trump’s Trade War is About Trump Not China
Morris Pearl
Why the Census Shouldn’t Ask About Citizenship
Ralph Nader
Bill Curry on the Move against Public Corruption
Josh Hoxie
Five Tax Myths Debunked
Leslie Mullin
Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation
Louis Proyect
Syria and Neo-McCarthyism
Dean Baker
Finance 202 Meets Economics 101
Abel Cohen
Forget Gun Control, Try Bullet Control
Robert Fantina
“Damascus Time:” An Iranian Movie
David Yearsley
Bach and Taxes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail