Tag Archives: Ralph Nader

Taking a broad view of National Whistleblower Appreciation Day

Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’  And there comes a time when   one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but we must take it because our conscience tells us that it is right. —Martin Luther King, Jr.

Historically and generally speaking, the term “whistleblower” is most often applied to employees sharing tales of malfeasance in government entities or corporations. In recent months Minnesotans, particularly MPR listeners, have heard the term applied even more frequently to allegations of fraud and abuse in universities, corporations and ecclesiastical circles. Whatever the setting, the risky role of whistleblowers – and their need for legal protection — will be feted on National Whistleblower Appreciation Day Thursday, July 30, 2015.

The date commemorates the July 30, 1778 passage by the Continental Congress of the first whistleblower protection law. By passing that law the Founding Fathers resolved that “it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”

Robert Greenwald of Brave New Films as “a time to honor whistleblowers and push for the de-criminalization of truth telling describes national Whistleblower Appreciation Day.” Greenwald goes on to underscore that “whistleblowers are pioneers of change who risk everything – their livelihood, homes and freedom – to tell the truth in hopes of making the world a better place.”

It was activist Ralph Nader who first fashioned the term “whistle-blower,” derived from the familiar whistle that referees use to spot an illegal or foul play. Nader’s intent was to replace what he considered loaded pejorative terms such as “snitch” and “informer”, intentionally used to squelch unwelcome disclosure of workplace conditions.

Though much national  focus is on contemporary headline whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, the roster of individuals who have earned the title is as diverse as it is extensive. Politico’s photo gallery of famous and infamous whistleblowers offers a broad swath of examples, some better known for their cinematic portrayals than for their real-life persona. (http://www.politico.com/gallery/2013/06/10-famous-infamous-whistleblowers/001091-015380.html)

Though there are many legal permutations, the fundamental legislation generally cited is the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, Public Law 101-12 as amended. This is the federal law that protects federal whistleblowers who work for the government and report agency misconduct. The law states that “A federal agency violates the Whistleblower Protection Act if agency authorities take (or threaten to take) retaliatory personnel action against any employee or applicant because of disclosure of information by that employee or applicant. Whistleblowers‪ may file complaints that they believe reasonably evidence a violation of a law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”

Clearly, the law refers to public information, federal agencies, employees and actions. Still, it sets a pace for industry, corporations, nonprofits, even faith-based entities, to pay heed to whistleblower protection.

In 2013 the effort to shield whistleblowers was strengthened by unanimous passage vote of a Senate Resolution offered by Senator Charles Grassley to establish the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus. The resolution requires that a bipartisan coalition of Senators be directed to “work to ensure whistleblowers in all sectors obtain meaningful protections.”

Key to implementation of the Senate Resolution is the National Whistleblower Center www.nationalwhistleblowersday.org), a prime organizer and sponsor of National Whistleblower Day. NWC promotes a bipartisan approach to whistleblower protection and plumbs the history of whistleblower law.

The National Whistleblower Legal Defense & Education Fund (NWLDEF) maintains a robust blog that traces over two decades of whistleblower laws and legal determinations. (http://www.whistleblowers.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=320&Itemid=141) The NWLDEF blog provides a reliable up-to-date report all things whistleblower-related.

A quick search discloses a wealth of resources for individuals seeking to know more about legal issues related to whistleblowers’ rights at the federal level. For example, the NWC offers a Guide to Federal Whistleblower Laws and Regulations, The Whistleblower’s Handbook, and a brief Know Your (Whistleblower) Rights FAQ that serves as a good starting point.

Needless to say, Minnesota law is a whole other issue. The State Law Library has updated its listing of whistleblower-related resources, including several cited in this post. Find that guide by clicking on http://mn.gov/lawlib/whistleblower.html.  Of special interest is Marshall Tannick’s lively narrative of Minnesota’s rather slow embrace of whistleblower protections. Though I am not legally trained or certified I was able to understand Tannick’s article. I was also able to comprehend much of the Bench & Bar 2013 review of whistleblower protection law in Minnesota (http://mnbenchbar.com/2013/09/the-canary-sings-again/)

Though most whistleblowers escape the headlines the threat of retribution silences many who know the facts but fear to blow the whistle.   The goal of National Whistleblower Day is to increase public awareness of the history, legal protections and unique role of whistleblowers, whatever the context, challenge, motivation or the impediments that inhibit whistleblower wannabes from taking action.

Whistleblowers and leaders from a mix of national organizations will be meeting in Washington, DC on National Whistleblower Appreciation Day for what is now identified as the Whistleblower Summit for Civil and Human Rights (http://whistleblowersummit.com/about/. Participants will continue efforts connect whistleblower and First Amendment advocates with each other and with the broader civil rights and global human rights movements. Theme of the 2015 Summit is Black Lives Matter—This Is the Movement!

Whistleblowers – from Ralph Nader to Daniel Ellsberg to Karen Silkwood to Coleen Rowley to Jennifer Hasselberger, along with countless anonymous truth-tellers – have changed history. Regardless of their work situation whistleblowers deserve protection from on-the-job retaliation and appreciation for a better-informed public.

National Whistleblower Appreciation Day ~Thursday, July 30, 2015




Minnesota Public Interest Research Group at 40 – Update


At forty, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) has encountered mood swings that range from ennui to euphoria.  Activist Monte Bute, long-time Metro State faculty member – and recipient of Metro State’s 2010 Alumnus Award – acknowledges that he, too, has gone through changes:

I was contemptuous of MPIRG when it was first created.   I was a revolutionary who denounced all reformist organization. I got a bit wiser about social change during my years as Director of Organizing for MPIRG from 1978 -82.  Students for a Democractic Society (SDS) was dead after a decade. MPIRG is alive and well after 40 years.  Who knew!

Executive Director Josh Winters, reflects on MPIRG’s maturing process, including growing pains, as a grassroots, non-partisan, nonprofit, student-directed organization.  The Minnesota PIRG, along with Oregon, was the first campus-based public interest research group in the nation.  Though the beginnings are often associated with Ralph Nader, Winters is quick to credit others, including Don Ross, who took a good idea and made it happen.  “A good idea is a good idea, but it takes people to do it,” Winters observes.  In this case the “people” were U of M students who collected over 25,000 signatures to form MPIRG on campus. The plan to fund development, including professional staff, with student activities fees seemed like a good idea at the time.

As the idea of grassroots and non-partisan involvement of students spread, activists on other  campuses collected over 50,000 signatures chapters sprang up statewide.  Marcia Avner who worked on the MPIRG staff from 1977-1983, credits local campus development to the fact that the organization “ensured that member campuses had opportunities for individuals to engage in a wide range of campaigns – from working for tax credits for investments in alternative energy (the early days of the green movement) to campaigning for passage an Equal Rights Amendment.  Students led the way on energy reforms, transformation in the utility industry which was compelled to consider conservation a core energy strategy, and recycling.”

Still, there were growing pains:  In spite of, or perhaps because of, the organization’s expanded outreach, MPIRG faced obstacles, particularly in the late 1990’s when campus conservative organizations launched protests against the use of students’ activity fees to fund a “liberal student organization” that opponents maintained “have been popping up at colleges across the country”  Pro-Family News expressed the anti-PIRG charges from like-minded campus groups:  “

There are groups promoting the homosexual agenda, groups with radical environmental concerns, groups dedicated to Marxism, groups engaged in alternative and non-traditional religious activities, and many more.  What is more disturbing than the mere existence of these groups is their ability to get funding from general student activity fees.  Liberal administrators have condoned this, just as they have condoned the establishment of radical academic courses and curricula.  With the blessing of administrators, and with the ability to dominate the student fee distribution process at many campuses, these liberal groups have gone virtually unched for years.  AT the same time, conservative groups and traditional Christian groups have often been blocked from receiving student service fee funding.”   Though the U of M did institute a refusable/refundable policy, MPIRG got the full blast of the conservatives’ concerns.  One administrator from the an MPIRG campus advised the U of M Board of Regents that “the funding scheme the University allows MPIRG to use relies heavily on student naivete” which he describes in detail.  The controversy garnered headlines and public outcry that included Governor Arne Carlson’s charge that “MPIRG clearly is a political and partisan lobby and ought not to receive favorite-funding status from the University of Minnesota.  If that is the case, then conservative activities should receive equal status.”

In 2006 Marty Andrade posted his reflections on “The Ten Great Moments in Minnesota Conservative History” on The Minnesota Republic blog..  Under the headline “Tim Pawlenty Leads Conservative Takeover of MPIRG” Andrade tells a story that mixes mandatory fees, a disputed election of MPIRG officers, and the emergence of a young politician. Andrade writes:

MPIRG, a left wing activist group, has been stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from tens of thousands of unwilling and often cash strapped students for decades now.  You see, for the longest time the U just assumed every student wanted to pay the optional MPIRG fee and thus either automatically charged you the fee (before online registration) or automatically checked a box which charged you the fee.  If you wanted to not pay the fee or get a refund you had to jump through hoops and otherwise hassle yourself.  And it was even worse before the days of online registration.  In 1983 a group of College Republicans decided to run for positions on the MPIRG board of directors.  When they were elected the decided to do away with the MPIRG fee.  A battle ensued between the local MPIRG board and the statewide board and the battle landed in court…Sadly, the court took MIRPG’s [sict] side in the case.,,,The fight against MPIRG started over twenty years ago and continues to this day, thanks to a group of College Republicans which included a student who became our current governor.

During the ongoing celebration of MPIRG’s legacy members, alumni and advocates affirm the adage “no pain, no gain”   What Winters sees is a perpetual state of change matched by an ability to cope based on experience. The MPIRG leader overflows with ideas as he looks to the future – how to harness today’s social media without losing the essential “hands on” essence of the organization.   Winters speaks enthusiastically about community/campus initiatives, e.g. the current approach to mandatory business recycling in Minneapolis.

Another priority for tomorrow’s MPIRG is research, particularly in-depth and long-term research. At present, for example, MPIRG is initiating an extensive survey of photo ID requirements on voting.  Another ongoing longitudinal study focuses on a statewide survey of sexual violence and assault on campus; the report of that study is due out next fall.

Today some 70,000 Minnesota college students are members of MPIRG; the ranks augmented by hundreds of community volunteers, including many MPIRG alumni.

MPIRG operates on nine campuses throughout the state:  Augsburg College, Carleton College, St. Catherine University, Hamline University, Macalester College, U of M-Duluth, U of M-Morris, U of M-Twin Cities, and William Mitchell College of Law.

The individual campus-based websites and the media reflect diverse campus initiatives, e.g.: MPIRG students at U of M-Morris were key players in the campus-wide green movement while at the TC’s campus some MPIRG students are dimming lights and duking it out in competitive recycling efforts while others have fought sweat-shop apparel at campus bookstores.  Other campuses are grappling with statewide issues of green transportation, health care for all, and affordable higher education.

As always, MPIRG takes a lead in voter-related issues including voter ID, voter registration, early primaries and students’ concerns that politicians curb youth issues in their efforts to garner votes from the growing population of elderly constituents who will are conditioned to show up on election day.

Looking ahead as MPIRG turns 40 Winters poses a compelling question:  Just how did a small cadre of students, volunteers and others create a statewide – actually national – network in a pre-social media environment?   The answer, he affirms, must be based on a deep commitment to grassroots organizing coupled with a shared vision to give voice to everyone.  The challenge, he concludes, is to harness today’s social media without losing the essential ‘hands on’ essence of the organization.

For her part, Avner, who is widely recognized as a vocal, informed and respected voice for social justice, emphasizes the influence of role models and mentors – including heroes such as Paul Wellstone– in her tribute to  the leadership development opportunities that MPIRG provides staff and students.  Avner attests to the fact that she herself “would not have enjoyed a career of policy advocacy if MPIRG had not set me on the path.”

As Monte Bute would put it, “Who knew!”