National Consumers League

NCL pays tribute to Esther Shapiro, longtime board member and consumer crusader (1918-2016)


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October 21, 2016

Contact: Cindy Hoang, National Consumers League, cindyh@nclnet.org, (202) 207-2832 

Washington, DC—The staff and Board of Directors of the National Consumers League (NCL) mourn the passing of Esther Shapiro, career consumer advocate, longtime National Consumers League Board Member, and head of Detroit’s Consumer Affairs Department for 24 years, appointed by Mayor Coleman Young in 1974. Shapiro died last Friday, October 14, at her home in Detroit’s Lafayette Park area. She was 98.

Shapiro was born in 1918 in Chicago, an only child of Jewish immigrants. According to her grandson Nick, in 1939, at age 20, she moved to New York City and got an office job at a garment factory, “very literally a sweatshop ... Conditions were so bad that the girls actually went on strike."

“Management came down on them hard, so they had a meeting and the people had pretty much decided on going back when the union organizer jumped on the table and said, ‘Like hell you’re going back.’ And that very dashing young man was her husband-to-be, Harold Shapiro,” said Nick Shapiro.

During World War II, Esther and Harold lived in Tacoma, WA. After the war, the couple moved to Detroit so that Harold Shapiro could work as a union organizer. The Shapiros became early volunteers in the civil rights movement, socializing often with Coleman Young, talking politics until the wee hours, and working hard on Young’s campaign for Mayor.

Shapiro had been a volunteer coordinator for Detroit’s board of education, but heard that the Michigan Credit Union League had a post for a consumer advocate for statewide credit unions.

"She impressed them with her ideas about educating consumers, about budgeting, and the law. So she taught herself on the job,” said her daughter, Andrea Shapiro. This gave her the skills for becoming the city’s consumer crusader

Shapiro became a consumer champion just as the movement was peaking in the 1970s. President Kennedy issued a manifesto on consumer rights in 1962, and three years later Ralph Nader’s iconic expose on the auto industry, Unsafe At Any Speed, was published. Shapiro became close with Esther Peterson, who served as consumer advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and headed the White House Office of Consumer Affairs under President Jimmy Carter. Shapiro joined the NCL Board of Directors in the 1980’s and served alongside Peterson.

Shapiro’s voice for consumers became known throughout the region because of her regular appearances on Detroit radio stations and her consumer columns in the Detroit Free Press, which ran from 1986 to 1995. She was fond of the expression, “The big print giveth and the small print taketh away.”

Shapiro headed Detroit’s consumer office well past Young’s departure, finally leaving at age 80. NCL celebrated with her and attended her induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in October 2015. Throughout her life, Shapiro supported NCL and members of the staff, attending many LifeSmarts teen financial literacy and consumer education competitions in her years on the Board. In 1997, NCL honored Esther Shapiro with the Florence Kelley Consumer Leadership Award.

Reflecting on the evolution of consumer advocacy, Shapiro noted that consumer protection had largely taken shape of warnings in fine print on product labeling, and most of her consumer columns ended with Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware and not expect government's protection. In an interview two years ago, according to the Detroit Free Press, Shapiro said, “We tried — we tried very hard, and I think we did some good."

Shapiro was predeceased by her husband and son, Mark. She is survived by her daughter, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Esther also felt a great sense of pride that her granddaughter Evelyn Shapiro, works as a carpenter and has a union leadership role. 

“Esther was a force early on that propelled the consumer movement … A female force,” said NCL Board Member Jodie Bernstein.

“The National Consumers League is grateful for the many contributions of this pioneering consumer advocate and for her service to the NCL Board over several decades,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg. “She and I became friends and she always offered me wise and valued counsel since the day I arrived at NCL. It was an honor to work with a consumer champion and pioneer. We at NCL will miss her.”

A memorial service for Esther Shapiro will be held at 2 p.m. Nov. 13 in the large meeting room of 1300 Lafayette, the high-rise apartment building just down the block from Shapiro’s condominium in Detroit’s Lafayette Park development.

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America's pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.