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THE GOODS : Mass Appeal : With its multilingual hot lines, no-frills pamphlets and launch into cyberspace, Consumer Action is bringing purchasing power to the people.

June 30, 1995|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ken McEldowney gets to work by 6:30 a.m. He eats lunch at his desk, and always orders the same thing: half a chicken salad sandwich on whole wheat with lettuce and tomato. "It's much faster," he says. "They start making it when I come in the door."

That means he doesn't waste time getting back to his job as executive director of Consumer Action, the San Francisco-based organization whose double emphasis on technology and diversity is a model for consumer organizations.

"Historically, the consumer movement has been seen as a white middle-class movement," says McEldowney, 55, a former consumer reporter and political activist. "We have charted out a different path."

From its second-floor office complex in a pleasant brick building on New Montgomery Street, Consumer Action operates a busy hot line giving consumer advice in English, Spanish and Chinese; publishes surveys, and contributes to the legislative and regulatory processes of Sacramento and Washington.

"It's the combination of a crusade and a profession," says McEldowney of the hectic routine he has headed for almost 15 years.

His staff of 20 distributes close to a million informational publications a year, mostly one-page flyers printed on both sides and translated into five to eight languages. Says business manager Mike Heffer: "It is the simplest, most direct kind of information for people who aren't going to read a long piece in Consumer Reports."

Consumer Action's no-frills publications tell people how to cope with changing telephone service, pay phones that don't return the refund, 911 usage, telemarketers, new bank accounts and credit cards. They also focus on such issues as workplace safety, lead poisoning and mortgage scams. They file briefs before the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, lobby for regulation of cable rates and attack fraudulent ads.

"There is no more effective regional consumer organization in the country, or one that has a more effective outreach to low-income and ethnic communities," says Steve Brobeck, executive director of Washington's Consumer Federation of America. "These are people who work extremely hard, receive modest compensation and serve millions of consumers effectively."

Consumer Action celebrated its 24th anniversary with a party last week at San Francisco's World Trade Club; the 150 guests included not only consumer advocates and community activists, but also a sprinkling of corporate executives, politicians and other Establishment leaders.

McEldowney, who has long been admired for his ability to generate creative funding, acknowledges a skill at "bringing people together."

Taking a break from phone calls and paperwork earlier this week, he discussed his group's success at getting corporations and government agencies to focus on the needs of low-income consumers.

"Basically, we pick topics where everybody agrees there is a need for education," he says, citing a new booklet on starting phone service.

It's a typical Consumer Action mix: published in English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese, and available in bulk and at no charge to nonprofit organizations and government agencies. And it was funded by AT & T, Sprint and MCI, three competitors with a common interest in getting telephone customers.

"The telephone companies, particularly, recognize the potential untapped market among non-English speaking consumers. We've been able to get educational contracts with a number of corporations to provide materials in five or six different languages," McEldowney says.

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Dividing his time between San Francisco and a Sacramento-Washington-New York circuit, McEldowney has been involved with Consumer Action from its early years. The group got its start as a volunteer hot line in a church basement in 1971 during the boom years of Ralph Nader-inspired activism. McEldowney was an early Consumer Action staff member and returned as executive director in 1980, bringing his own priorities.

"I came to the consumer movement with a more political view than some folks," he says. As a founder of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Michigan, he helped set up community organizing groups around the country in the early 1960s. The activity was a lesson in the importance of networking, which he has continued to refine.

Watching the consumer movement develop around the country, he realized a need for outreach.

"I could see there were a zillion fact sheets out there, and hundreds of consumer agencies that wanted material for their clients but didn't have the staff time to write them or the resources to buy them," he says.

So Consumer Action closed the gap. It now provides free flyers, booklets and other information to a national network of about 1,700 social service agencies and community groups, including 1,200 in California.

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