By his own measure, Rick Woldenberg was once the most politically inactive person you’ve ever met. Chairperson of his family’s educational toy company, Learning Resources, Inc., Rick led a quiet life in Illinois. As he says, “I was as removed from Washington as you could possibly imagine.” But, all that changed with the passage of a seemingly innocuous law—the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, or CPSIA. With the passage of the law, Rick found himself swept into the national spotlight as the champion of a new American fight for freedom and democracy.
CPSIA was signed into law on August 14, 2008. Essentially what Rick calls “a backlash law,” it came as a response to hysteria over an outcropping of toy recalls in 2007 and 2008. Designed to give the United States Consumer Products Safety Commission better regulatory control over the safety of products made and imported for sale in the U.S., the legislation also contains new regulations that require manufacturers and importers to show that their products don’t contain harmful levels of lead and specific chemicals. For many of us, a law like this sounds good. It is intended to make safer products for kids 12 and under. How can something like that be bad? As the head of an educational toy company that manufactures and sells about 2,000 different products for specialty markets, Rick was able to see something deeper in the law, something more insidious. “Companies like ours have behaved responsibly for decades. But, this law severely punishes companies like ours—in fact changes companies like ours—in ways that we think are bad not just for our own interests but for our customers as well.”
Knowing about the issues that gave rise to CPSIA, Rick was aware that the toy recalls leading up to the passage of the new legislation were actually very concentrated. Very large numbers of recalled items came out of small areas. And, there was only one tragedy associated with the concentrated circle of risky products. A small child had died after swallowing a leaded bangle off of an inexpensive bracelet. “It was a tragedy but it was in fact just one injury. That incident plus some shockingly large recalls were used by consumer groups and the media to whip up a frenzy resulting in a law that is essentially an overreaction.” Was the safety problem serious enough to create so many complications for so many companies, many of which are highly concerned with safety? Rick thought no. There must be another way…
In his previous life, Rick had worked as a lawyer in Chicago. Deciding to leave the law profession in 1990, he took a job with Learning Resources, then a company of 14 employees. Learning Resources now has over 150 people on its team and Rick is passionate about the work they do for children and schools. “It’s a family business, we’re very conscious of safety and of being a member of our community. We make products in basic areas like early childhood, math and reading. We also make teacher resources—tools that a teacher uses to facilitate teaching. We choose to be in a business that makes people’s lives better, we’re in a business that helps raise people up and that’s important to us.” Although his products comply with the new standards and his company has not yet been financially impacted in a major way, Rick found that other businesses were. And, he felt that he could no longer stand idly by and watch as politicians created a terrible new reality without his input. “I love our company and I love what we do. The people who work in our company and who buy from our company mean a lot to me, the people I work with in our industry mean a lot to me. I couldn’t stand idly by. I couldn’t just take it. Sometimes, when you’re threatened, you do what you have to do.”
Rick quickly realized how expensive it would be for companies to comply with the new testing regulations. And, he saw that the legislation would make for more complications and headaches for a wide range of businesses, including his own. “I believe that these new incentives will cause several terrible things to happen. It will cause a lot of responsible products to be dropped. Right now, we sell about 2,000 products. At 2,000 items, we might have 100,000 tasks annually to complete to comply with the law. That’s very impractical but the consequences of failure are severe. So, the law doesn’t want you to sell 2,000 items - it now wants you to sell 50 to make compliance doable. The law also wants me to abandon small customers and go after high volume customers, like Wal-Mart. Only in the mass market do your new costs blend into your old costs. I HATE the idea that there is a law that says I cannot be in the specialty business, because it renders the specialty business un-economic. If you have a dyslexic child and you want to buy products to help with dyslexia, you need a specialized market. Nobody will be able to cater to those markets anymore!”
In Rick’s estimation, about 60% of the U.S. economy is in some way touched by CPSIA. Clothing manufacturers, book publishers, toymakers, sporting goods manufacturers, even pen companies are all impacted by the new regulations. But, even though so many people and businesses were affected, nobody wanted to lead a campaign to against the CPSIA — many people feared a public backlash against any effort to oppose a law that with the word “safety” in it. So, armed with trust that his company and many others like it act with children’s best interests and safety in mind, he decided to go for it. “The way I assumed my role is that I believe I was the first person in the country to stand up and attack this law publicly in my own name. I gave a speech at the CPSC in November and have been advocating against this law in a broad basis since then.”
In the beginning, speaking up was scary. “I’ve been arguing since I was five. When this first started I was concerned about how consumers and our dealers would react to me taking a stance against a public safety law. But, I have a lot of confidence in my fellow man and believed they would support me. Since November, since I started this, I’ve had zero negative feedback. Not from a consumer, not from a mom, not from a business customer. Of course, the politicians, the ones behind this law, don’t hold me in the highest regard from what I understand.”
After the law was passed in the summer of 2008, Rick worked with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) on rulemaking under the law. Rick was then invited to be on a CPSC panel discussion on lead on November 6, 2008. At this meeting, Rick got his start as an advocate when he gave a speech on how the law is affecting operating companies like Learning Resources. The next day, he went to the Hill to talk to the key legislative aides on the bill. “I talked to every single one. Each one of them said, ‘I’ve never heard of you. I’ve never seen your letterhead before.’ One of them even said, ‘I’d really like to see your letter now.’ This really pissed me off! The law had already passed.” [All of Rick’s letters to Congress have been published online at http://www.learningresources.com/cpsia.]
It was clear to Rick that the legislative process had taken place behind closed doors. Deciding that this would not happen again, Rick thought “I’ll create a public record so this issue will be open.” He put up a special website and later started blogging. Soon, others joined him. More websites were created and people began paying attention to the need to amend the CPSIA. The effort grew exponentially. “We have a number of people from the education business, crafters, homeschoolers, people from the bicycle, ATV and motorcycle businesses, toys, people who make pens, clothing and footwear companies, members of the consumer specialty industry, sporting goods people—it has become a very big coalition.“
The coalition’s efforts to force a public hearing on the CPSIA issues have been frustrating. In December 2008, Rick was informed that the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection headed by Rep. Bobby Rush would hold hearings. “I was told I was being called as a witness, and then the hearings were cancelled.” Later a subcommittee of the House Committee on Small Business was going to hold hearings on the small business issues caused by the CPSIA. Snakebit again, Woldenberg was not able to testify under oath—the hearings were cancelled. “They don’t want us participating, we spoil the message.”
Refusing to go away, Rick and his coalition partners decided to take matters into their own hands. The web sites and blogs were a good start, but they were not enough. What was needed was a national debate! In addition to writing more letters to Congress and informing everyone and anyone about how CPSIA affects everyone, the idea of hosting a rally was broached. The concept was simple really, “Let’s get together and talk about the CPSIA in Washington, D.C.” A rally was appealing for several reasons. It could serve as an educational platform for people who don’t understand what is happening with the CPSIA and it provided an opportunity for opponents of the CPSIA like Woldenberg to go on the record.
Scheduled for April 1, 2009 at the new Capitol Visitors Center, the rally has grown to be so much more. It is an example of democracy in action. It will go down in history as the first fully-interactive public rally held at the new Capitol Visitors Center —a far cry from Rick’s early days as politically inactive! “Our effort in this rally is to create our own record, but it’s also to share how democracy works. We’re going to have an open forum. Our effort is to participate in a discussion, not to exclude those with opposing views. This rally is intended to set an example of how the process is supposed to work. Our involvement in the official process has been denied. The Congressional leadership won’t even acknowledge us—I’ve never received an answer to a single letter I’ve sent to Congress and I’ve sent dozens of letters to dozens of legislators. We’re attempting to show that this is still our government; it’s still our country and our laws. We want to invite broad participation in this event which is why we have invested so heavily in an open Internet platform.”
In an effort to get as many people involved in the Rally as possible, Rick and his group have created a new web site, http://www.AmendTheCPSIA.com. “The website was empty just a few days ago. It was created and filled with content over the last 10 days! We’re going to have streaming video and audio feeds, uploaded pictures, streaming “tweets,” and you will be able to send questions to the floor from the website. We’re going to do this the right way—all in two weeks!” The Rally already has had far-reaching effects. One teacher in Alabama is going to have her High School government club watch the Rally and write papers on it. “We’re going to encourage other teachers to watch our rally and participate in our process. There’s a bigger issue about democracy here, not just about our issues with the CPSIA. We want people to look at our message. We’re hoping that other teachers will take some class time to watch our Rally. We want to give these voices a chance to be heard.”
Rick is quick to point out that his advocacy is borne of strong feelings about the United States. “When you are trained as a lawyer, you love the law. I love and respect the law and I think many of our laws work quite well. This law is not well thought-out. The terrible effects of this law upset and offended me. I do love and value this country. It became important to me stand up to defend our way of life. Call it an awakening! In some respects, this is a very personal experience. It calls on my values, what’s really important to me. I couldn’t sit back and not do something. It’s very gratifying to know that this is a community effort. No individual could have done this alone, but together we are making a difference. Every once in a while, you get the call. It’s time to stand up and be counted. ”
Go to http://www.amendthecpsia.com for details on the April 1 rally and about how you can participate!
Thank you Rick, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Tamar Burris Story of My Life®