Consumer advocate Ralph Nader

The consumer and political activist shares his opinions on how minimum wage and the weakened labor movement will play into the 2012 presidential race.

A consumer advocate, lawyer and political activist, Ralph Nader first made headlines in 1965 with his book Unsafe at Any Speed, which led to congressional hearings and passage of a series of automobile safety laws. Nader went on to build a national network of citizen groups that have had a significant impact in such areas as tax reform, nuclear energy, healthcare and safety programs. Named by The Atlantic as one of the 100 most influential figures in American history, Nader ran for president twice, including in the controversial 2000 election. The best-selling author's upcoming title is The Seventeen Solutions.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Ralph Nader to this program. The iconic consumer advocate is also a three-time presidential candidate. Among his latest priorities is a campaign to increase the minimum wage in this country. It’s called He joins us tonight from Washington. Ralph Nader, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Ralph Nader: Thank you very much, Tavis.

Tavis: As you well know, we all know, just days ago the presidential debate commission announced these four upcoming debates – three presidential, one vice presidential coming up this fall – and I was just thinking earlier today about the question that you may remember when a particular candidate was asked the price of a carton of milk, and he did not know.

He was roundly dismissed around the country for not knowing the price of a carton of milk and how out of touch he was with the lives of everyday people. I ask whether or not you think all four of the top guys on the ticket – Obama, Biden, Romney and Ryan – if they were asked the minimum wage, do you think they would know what it is right now?

Nader: I think now they would because there’s been some press focus on it, and Romney was asked about it because for 10 years, like Rick Santorum, they were for it, and inflation adjusted minimum wage. So earlier this year he was asked very specifically, and he started to waffle, although Santorum held firm. And obviously, Biden and Obama know that it’s only $7.25 federal, the lowest in the Western world’s major nations.

In Ontario it’s $10.25; in France it’s $11, the equivalent, per hour. We’re the lowest in the Western world, and if it was adjusted from 1968 to the present for inflation, it would be $10.36 an hour, and Jesse Jackson Jr. rounded it out with his bill, H.R. 5901, with about 20, 25 sponsors in the House of Representatives at $10 an hour.

Now just think – there are 30 million workers in the U.S. who work between $7.25 an hour and $10 an hour. You would think that the Democrats would see this as a winning issue, and yet they’ve dragged their feet 2009, 2010, 2011. The promise by President Obama of $9.50 by 2011, which he made in 2008, went by the wayside, and just recently Senator Harkin and Congressman George Miller have put in a three-year phase to $9.80 by the year 2014 and made every signal that they’re not serious about it.

No hearings in the Senate, no major press conference a couple weeks ago by Congressman George Miller boosting it with organized labor, social conscious church groups, antipoverty groups. Completely ignored it. Just put out a one or two-page press release.

I think this is a mobilizable issue fast. Labor Day is coming up, Tavis. Some of those 30 million workers should join with the Occupy groups and surround the local offices back home of the senators and representatives. You can get their address by looking in the phone book under U.S. government.

That will really get a momentum going, and it will start pressuring President Obama so that his Labor Day address just coming up will focus on pumping tens of billions of dollars into a recessionary economy in the form of consumer demand to provide basic necessities for these hardworking people.

The support comes in, over 70 percent of the people in this country consistently have favored an inflation-adjusted minimum wage, and that includes a lot of (audio break) Republicans. I have no idea how the Democrats have become a party of caution, cash and cowardliness, are not picking up on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s great legacy – the minimum wage, which he started in 1938.

Tavis: So why would a respected congressman like George Miller, out of California here, of course, where I sit tonight – where is it every night, for that matter – but why would a respected member of Congress, a Democrat, mention something, put something out there, but then, to your words, or to your sense, at least, not be serious about it? What’s the point in floating that, so to speak?

Nader: In putting out so late in the election year.

Tavis: Right.

Nader: I think the answer is a sense of defeatism. I’ve been all over the House of Representatives, in one office after another. I’ve never seen among the Democrats such discouragement. They tell you privately they’re not going to take back the House from Boehner and Cantor.

Senior staff say to me, “Boehner will give us nothing.” I said, “Boehner will give you nothing?” I said, “What kind of attitude is that? You make them do it.” Just the way Newt Gingrich, a junior member of the House years ago, said he was going to topple the Speaker of the House, the Democrat Speaker of the House, and he did, and then he toppled Tom Foley three years later and recovered the House for the Republicans.

He didn’t sit around saying, “Oh, Tom Foley won’t give us anything.” There’s a real defeatism. I cannot explain it in any other way, which means they need a jolt from prominent outside Democrats like Gary Hart or Mike Dukakis or Mark Green. They need a jolt from back home, surrounding the offices in good, peaceful demonstrations with great signs of the senators and representatives.

And by the way, they’re all back home now in the August recess. They’re having town meetings. Show up. Thirty million workers, just a few of those workers can turn the whole attitude, the whole climate around on this issue on Capitol Hill, and they’ll get Barack Obama’s attention, too.

Tavis: I said a couple of years ago that this was going to be – almost two years ago I said on a national television program that this was going to be the nastiest, the ugliest, the most divisive, the most expensive and the most racist campaign for the White House in the history of this republic.

I didn’t want to be right about that, but sadly, I am, and now everybody, everywhere you look now, you see people acknowledging the fact that this race is all of that and then some.

I raise that because in this ugly, nasty, divisive, expensive, racist campaign for the White House, those persons who support Barack Obama support him in large measure because they know or believe that he is so much better than Mitt Romney.

Here’s the question: As long as Obama positions himself as better than Mitt Romney and his supporters buy that argument, and those supporters tend to be the unemployed or the under-employed or those making minimum wage that you’re talking about, but they still believe he’s better than Romney, how then do you get them to push Obama, if he’s their choice, over Romney? You get my question?

Nader: Yeah. They simply have to make demands on him. They can still vote for him, but they can say before voting day, “We are demanding that you take this position on cracking down on corporate crime and consumer abuse and fighting poverty and raising the minimum wage.” That’s the way you do it.

If you are a least-worst voter, so you go to the polls and you think Romney’s worse so you vote for Obama, that doesn’t preclude you in the weeks before the election from making demands.

But too many people think they are precluded. They think that just because they want Obama to win that they can’t pull him in the direction of tens of millions of desperately deprived and economically suppressed working Americans. Well, that means Obama can take all of you for granted, not even look back, because he knows he’s got your vote, and then be pulled by the corporate people, the corporate lobbyists, in a direction where there’s no pull toward the people in the opposite direction.

It’s a failing voter strategy. Put demands on the people that you’re going to vote, and put demands on the people that you’re going to vote against.

Tavis: How did – how has, put another way – how has President Obama gotten away with making a number of promises that have not been kept, but particularly, for the purpose of tonight’s conversation, how has he gotten away in this recession with not keeping the promise to at least fight, to draw a line in the sand and fight hard for an increase in the minimum wage?

I’m not naïve and neither are you. I get the Republican obstructionism. But what many of us have not seen is a fight on behalf of those who are making minimum wage or less, fighting to increase that to $10 an hour. How’s he gotten away without even engaging in the fight?

Nader: Because the Republicans are so bad that he doesn’t have to demonstrate a positive proposal or agenda for the country, and because he didn’t do that in 2009/2010, he lost the House of Representatives, lost some of the margin in the Senate. Then of course he can say, “Well, why bother? Boehner and Cantor, the Republicans who dominate the House, they’re not going to allow anything to go through,” so that’s an excuse.

The second is a huge amount of emphasis on raising money from commercial interests, including Wall Street. That’s always in the back of the Democrats’ mind. The third is the weakness of the labor unions. Richard Trumka, who grew up as a coal miner – his father died from black lung disease, coal miner’s pneumoconiosis – became a lawyer, became head of the United Mine Workers.

Now he’s head of the AFL-CIO. Millions of workers belong to member unions. He is not taking a strong position. He’s on the record being for a much higher minimum wage, but they haven’t put the TV ads on. They haven’t put the muscle through the member unions all over the country. They haven’t focused on the White House.

So you might ask why, and I’ll tell you, it really comes down to personality and character, Tavis. They just don’t have the fortitude; they don’t have the transforming leadership spirit. They’re always making excuses on behalf of other people who are against what they’re doing.

I’ve never seen a worse scene in Washington, D.C. of defeatism by people who should know better, and one reason is that they get reelected automatically, most of these Democrats –

Tavis: Right.

Nader: – as the Republicans do in these gerrymandered districts. They don’t have any primary competition.

Tavis: But here’s the argument that’s always – or the issue that’s always lost on me when it comes to unions, and I share your concern that the unions have not been as aggressive or as strong as they should be in their own defense over the last few years.

And again, they’ve bought the argument that Obama is better than the other side, so I get all that. But here’s what I don’t get. Long-term, it seems to me you damage yourself, you diminish your own integrity, you hurt your own credibility if you don’t fight for those things which you believe in no matter who’s in the White House.

So even if in the short run person X is better than person Y, how in the long run does this make labor stronger if labor doesn’t draw a line in the sand and fight now?

Nader: Of course. It’s a losing strategy. A number of union members are shrinking year after year. It’s down to the lowest in about 70 years as a percentage of the workforce, and the long-range, short-range point you’re making can be embellished this way, and that’s Harry Reid did not change the filibuster rule when he took control with Obama. He didn’t change the filibuster. He didn’t modify it.

So in effect he was left with having to get 60 votes, a super-majority, for anything. And the Republicans smelled that and they said no way, so they would email threats of filibustery from Senator McConnell, the Republican leader, to Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate. Dozens and dozens and dozens of emails, because Reid never said, “You want to filibuster? Here’s the floor in the Senate. Here’s C-SPAN and Public Broadcast System beaming it to the American people.

“Why don’t you filibuster and let the American people know that you’re against the worker, that you’re against consumer protection, that you’re against clean air and clean water. That you won’t do anything about a bloated military budget. That you won’t really push for tax reform for all those big corporations that pay zero income tax in pure dollars, less than ordinary cab driver pays.”

I’m telling you, there’s really no explanation except that they’ve got safe seats, they’ve got a very conflict-averse president, Obama, and they’ve got no pressure from the grassroots coming in on them. They’re a bit frightened by the Occupy movement, but then it sort of fizzled and they lost their concern.

Tavis: Let me ask a philosophical question, because I hear the argument that you’re making about a lack of courage, a lack of conviction, a lack of commitment, and in some regards a lack of character in Washington. I’ll come back to the politics in just a second.

But whatever one thinks of Ralph Nader – this is my own sense of this – whatever one thinks of Ralph Nader, it could be – and as you know, you’ve been called everything, a narcissist and arrogant and pompous and you’ve lost your mind.

All kinds of things have been said about you alongside all of the wonderful attributes that you are regarded for – the seatbelt safety law and all the other wonderful consumer advocate proposals that you have fought to put on the books that make all of our lives better, so you’ve gotten both sides of it.

But whatever one thinks of you, one has to acknowledge or admit, it seems to me, that Ralph Nader has never lacked courage, and the philosophical question I want to ask is whatever happened to that in Washington? I’m not naïve here, again, but when you talk about Abraham Lincoln and you talk about FDR, you talk about LBJ, you talk about people willing to fight for the courage of their convictions.

So from your perspective – and we’ll come back again to politics in just a second – but whatever happened to that kind of attitude on the part of some folk in Washington, at least?

Nader: Well, they’re rewarded for not being transforming leaders, for not standing up for the people back home. They’re rewarded in the language they understand, which is they raise a lot of money for their campaign, they often don’t have to worry about a primary challenger, and they get reelected.

It was only until the last two congressional rounds that 96 percent of the members of the House would be reelected – 96 percent. It went down to slightly under 90 percent recently because of the surge of the Tea Party candidates, but still, it’s the highest reelection rate in the Western world, and it applies at the stage legislative level as well.

But there are a lot of other reasons. One is of course the weakening of the labor movement and its weak leaders, with the exception of the California Nurses Association. You want to see a really tough advocacy, pro-patient, pro-worker, pro-organizing for more members, check out the California Nurses Association and their executive director, Rose Ann DeMoro, as a comparison with a lot of what’s going on in the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.

The other thing is that the media is not jolting them. You see, we used to get on the “Phil Donohue Show,” “Merv Griffin Show,” the “Mike Douglas Show.” These were afternoon entertainment shows, but they always reserved 10, 20 percent of their time for serious advocates highlighting women’s rights groups and peace groups and labor groups and consumer advocates.

That’s gone now. It’s nothing but sadomasochism on these afternoon shows. As far as the newspapers go, they used to follow the story. That is, if I was pushing for auto safety on Capitol Hill, they would say, “This is pretty significant. There’s quite a bit of evidence that there needs to be safer cars.” There were no federal standards in 1965 for motor vehicles.

So they would follow the story as there were Senate hearings and House hearings and all kinds of things going on, pushing the bill toward Lyndon Johnson to sign. Now the big newspapers do features. They don’t follow the civic community.

I’ve been complaining to “The New York Times” and “Washington Post” about that. They just do features, hoping they’ll get Pulitzer Prizes or some other journalistic prize. I don’t think they have any idea how that undermines the entire civic community, because unless people are able to have a voice in the mass media, they won’t be able to jolt into action the slumbering politicians, to put it mildly, who are on the campaign cash dole into action.

At least that’s the record of history. It’s only when they get a rumble from the people. Nixon was so afraid of the rumble from the people he signed the EPA law. He signed the occupational safety law, the product safety law with flourishing statements. The air pollution law, the water pollution law, because he was afraid of the rumble of the people coming out of the ’60s.

That’s what we need now, and Labor Day is perfect for this minimum wage, $10, the Jesse Jackson bill, H.R. 5901. Just remember that. Get people out around the offices of the senators and representatives and buttonhole them now. In the next two weeks they’re having town meetings.

I’ll give you an example of what happened. In Florida, a fellow had an $8.50 an hour job buttonholed Congressman Young, a Republican, and he went up to him and said, “Are you for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s $10 minimum wage,” which Jesse Jackson Jr. calls “Catching up with 1968 minimum wage.”

Young looked at him and said, “Why do you want that benefit?” and he said, “Benefit? I can’t make it on $8.50 an hour.” He said, “Why do you want that benefit? Go get a job.” Well, that went viral. That went all over the country.

If you would just buttonhole your senator, buttonhole your congressman, just say, “Are you for a $10 minimum wage, catching up with 1968, when the worker productivity was half of what it is now,” is that a big deal, catching up with 1968?

Tavis: Since you mentioned 1968 and you mentioned the media, “The New York Times” and others, back in ’68 there were a number of papers, major leading papers in this country, that did not just have a business page but as you’ll recall we used to have a labor page.

Again, I keep saying the word “naïve.” I’m not naïve tonight, but I wonder what the chances are and how it might make a difference if the media ever got serious again about covering labor – and I don’t mean the labor movement, but I mean covering labor in this country with a labor page in the newspaper, a labor page in the magazines, just like they have business pages.

It’s not even just that. Not only do we no longer have labor pages as opposed to business pages, but look at all the business magazines that are on newsstands, and there are no labor magazines. For whatever reason, the media seems to have turned a blind eye to the average worker in this country, but it seems to me that there’s no better time than right now to start to refocus on labor.

Nader: Yeah, excellent point, because the number of full-time labor reporters working for newspapers is at a historic low. Most of them don’t even have a labor reporter, number one. Number two, the labor press itself is sort of sleepy and declining. The unions have their newspapers. Again, I find the best ones are the International Association of Machinists, United Auto Workers and the California Nurses, but the AFL-CIO, that doesn’t get people steamed the way my new book wants them to get steamed to overcome corporatism.

Second, look at the columnists. I’ve written now twice to EJ Dionne, columnist, “Washington Post,” Krugman, columnist for “The New York Times.” I’ve written to other columnists to say, “Why aren’t you covering the minimum wage?” You don’t get any answer.

Actually, Harry Kelber, who is 98 years old, out of his little apartment in Manhattan, has a great website and puts out three articles a week and is actually running, is the only person running to challenge Rich Trumka for the presidency of the AFL-CIO. You want to see what labor used to be like, and he’s in his 78th year of promoting labor – spectacular person that the press hardly pays any attention to.

Harry Kelber, K-E-L-B-E-R. Extremely clear, lucid, right on it. He’s got a website. I think it’s or some other name, but you can find out. But without that push by the labor press, again, there’s nothing to jolt the members of Congress. In the meantime, the business press has expanded spectacularly.

Tavis: So I got a minute to go here. It’s one thing for the leaders to not get it, and I’m talking now White House leaders, Romney campaign leaders, labor leaders, it’s one thing for labor leaders or American political leaders not to get it, but how do the American people go through this campaign, this sprint from Labor Day to Election Day, without forcing this issue on the agenda?

Nader: I don’t see how they can. They may be so discouraged and depressed, but there’s no excuse, folks. Only you are going to do it, one at a time, two at a time, six at a time, 20 at a time. That’s the lesson of the highlights of American history for working people, number one.

Number two, and this is really very, very important, Labor Day is the key point here to turn this around. Tell your labor unions to put out major positions, surround the members of Congress in their offices back home, buttonhole the members of Congress, and you’ll see the reverberation coming right back.

Tavis: Right.

Nader: Democracy has two secrets. One, it works, and two, it’s a lot easier than you think. (Laughter) So you have to try.

Tavis: Ralph Nader, on that note, I thank you. Ralph Nader, longtime, of course, consumer advocate. We have a great deal to thank him for with regard to the lives that we live, with regard to safety and food and so many other issues in this country.

His new fight is,, as you’ve heard tonight in this conversation. Ralph, good to have you on. All the best to you, sir.

Nader: Thank you very much, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for tuning in, and as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 11, 2012 at 8:42 pm