U.S. PIRG and the Fund for the Public Interest

The United State Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) is a 501(c)(4) organization founded by failed presidential contender Ralph Nader. Its sister organization, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, is a 501(c)(3). U.S. PIRG is the top of a federation of state-level PIRGs that exist in 23 states, including CALPIRG (California) and MassPIRG (Massachusetts). The whole operation is funded, in part, by the Fund for the Public Interest, U.S. PIRG’s fundraising arm. FIP is one of the largest left-wing fundraising organizations in the country.

The organization employs a herd of young activists who knock on doors and carry clipboards to seek donations and petition signatures. Those employees hit the ground in 47 states throughout the country. U.S. PIRG claims to be an organization advocating for a “healthier, safer world in which we’re freer to pursue our own individual well-being and the common good.”

In theory, not bad. In practice, U.S. PIRG’s claims couldn’t be further from reality.

U.S. PIRG advocates for broad bans on products Americans use and enjoy daily. The U.S. PIRG nanny state doesn’t leave Americans “freer to pursue our own individual well-being” so much as it begs the government to strip Americans of their ability to choose for themselves by demanding all-out bans on consumer products. 

The Nonprofit Who Stole Christmas

Just as families finish wrapping their holiday gifts, U.S. PIRG likes to drop its annual “Trouble in Toyland” report to place fear in the hearts of parents who just wanted to give their child the top gift on their Christmas list. 

U.S. PIRG’s list seems to include any toy that could have a one-in-a-million chance of harming a child. They’ve called for parents to stop buying toy fire trucks because the siren noise “could damage kids’ hearing.” They’ve warned against allowing children to play with magnets. They’ve criticized companies for not issuing broad enough choking hazards

The Toy Association, a toymaker trade association, has dismissed U.S. PIRG’s annual list for creating unnecessary concern for parents during the holidays. 

“PIRG does this every year at this time and we find that it’s needlessly confusing and alarming to consumers at a time when it’s supposed to be a joyous time of the year,” Joan Lawrence, the Toy Association’s senior vice president of safety standards and regulatory affairs, said in an interview with NBC. 

“There are positive things we can do to ensure safety and the industry does those all year long,” he added. “But PIRG comes along in November and doesn’t bring anything positive. They bring a scary message. And the industry actually works year-round on toy safety. We continually look at new products that are invented and we look at the way kids are using them and we look at ways the standards may need to be updated.”

But for PIRG, fear-inducing reports are a way to open wallets. The U.S. PIRG website has a pop-up advertisement asking for money attached to each of their “Trouble in Toyland” reports. 

Bans, Bans, and More Bans

It can be difficult to find a product area where U.S. PIRG hasn’t called for a ban. Rather than letting Americans decide how to consume products responsibly, U.S. PIRG has taken the position that bans are the best option. It’s all for your own good, of course.

Take plastic bottles, for example. In a 2018 opinion piece, Alex Truelove, the director of U.S. PIRG’s Zero Waste Campaign, said the only way to reduce plastic waste is to flat-out ban plastic bottles. He said a tax on plastic bottles wouldn’t work because people would just pay it without changing their behavior (as they have with plastic bag fees). He argued that recycling isn’t an option either, mainly because it could be difficult to implement logistically so that all Americans have access to recycling. He said the only option is to ban plastic bottles outright. In fact, he couldn’t even come up with a drawback of banning plastic bottles:

“Why not? It’s viable, given that we already have more sustainable alternatives (glass, paper, bioplastics, ceramic, and more). And when given a mandate, major companies will comply and lead the way. […] We clearly don’t need single-use plastics — neither the detrimental side effects of drilling for the fossil fuels needed to make them, nor the pollution after we’re done with them. Quite the opposite:  what we need to do is act on the fact that what seems convenient to us now will create insurmountable hardships for our children and grandchildren. 

A ban is the most effective way to rid us of single-use plastics once and for all. Sometimes the simplest answer is the right one.”

It doesn’t take much effort to destroy this argument. For example, glass is not the eco-friendly alternative to plastic. Glass is heavier than plastic — causing more fuel to be burned in transportation — and it can take more than a million years to decompose in a landfill. U.S. PIRG doesn’t trust Americans to recycle but they trust them to reuse every single bottle ever after they ban plastic? Ridiculous.

This same half-baked logic goes into most of U.S. PIRG’s policies. The organization wants to ban the weedkiller RoundUp without considering the potential harm it could do to the U.S. crop production. It wants to ban antibiotics in meat production, even though antibiotics keep animals healthy. They want to stop cosmetics companies from using chemical fragrances in their products despite the exposure to chemicals being too low to have an effect on human health.  

It seems as though U.S. PIRG will not be content until everyone is walking around in (non-plastic) bubble wrap so they never face a risk even the most minimal risk. Oh, wait. They’ve warned against using bubble wrap, too. 

Transparency Troubles

While U.S. PIRG is happy to micromanage the products Americans can use, they’re not very fond of transparency. Charity Navigator gave the U.S. PIRG Education Fund a one-star rating and a failing grade in “accountability and transparency.” 

U.S. PIRG’s lack of transparency is interesting, considering they’ve been demanding that cosmetics companies and fast-food restaurants list every single ingredient used in their products. 

Part of the reason that U.S. PIRG is so opaque is by design. Between U.S. PIRG, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, each state-level PIRG, and the Fund for the Public Interest, it’s difficult to track what each entity is doing. Doug Phelps, the chairman of U.S. PIRG, sits on the board of 16 PIRG-related entities. That’s quite a few hats to wear.

Phelps founded the Douglas H Phelps Foundation which has given grants to many left-wing organizations, including the Center for American Progress and the Clinton Foundation. 

A “Liberal Sweatshop”

The U.S. PIRG affiliated Fund for the Public Interest (of which Phelps is a board member) was called a “liberal sweatshop” in a blistering piece from the Daily Beast detailing a 2009 class-action lawsuit settlement that FPI entered. 

The $2.5 million settlement came after several former U.S. PIRG workers reported that they were being paid less than the minimum wage while working on campaigns for the organization and its affiliates. Christian Miller, who filed the lawsuit, said the organization exploited young workers who were passionate about changing the world.

“They basically look at the next generation of social change as the next source of cheap labor,” Miller said. 

Shaking Down Students

While the young workers who joined the class action lawsuit against U.S. PIRG purposefully signed up to work for the organization, many students gave money to U.S. PIRG without realizing it. 

U.S. PIRG established itself on many college campuses where it convinced universities to have an automatic payment into the state PIRG as part of the enrollment costs for the school. Often, this was done by petition. U.S. PIRG would work with student leaders to petition the university to add an enrollment fee that automatically went to U.S. PIRG. At some universities, students could opt-out of the fee but at many schools, it was mandatory and nonrefundable. 

Students struggling to understand their already confusing tuition bill often didn’t realize that they were being forced to pay the organization — even if they disagreed with the policies being pushed by U.S. PIRG. The Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow estimated that the policy yielded U.S. PIRG tens of millions from unwitting students. 

U.S. PIRG’s student shakedown was eventually hindered by two US Supreme Court rulings that mandated that student fees could only be dispersed in a “viewpoint neutral” fashion. In other instances, students revolted against the fees. At Macalester College in Minnesota, students voted to remove the fee after MPIRG attempted to renegotiate its contract with the university. Even students who agreed with the goals of U.S. PIRG didn’t like the system. 

“I basically agree with almost everything they did,” one student said. “I just thought any political lobbying group shouldn’t be taking money by default.”