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Making it hard to repair products leaves customers in a fix

The operators of small repair shops say manufacturers have made it difficult to locate, buy and install the replacement parts, which are often pricey.     

In February, state Rep. Michelle Mussman, D-Schaumbug, introduced a Digital Right to Repair Act for Illinois. The bill has not yet been brought to a committee vote.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

It’s just a few months old, but my iPhone is feeling run down. It’s always tired. I make a few calls, its juice runs low, and it takes hours to recharge it. It’s tough to fix the phone on my own. I own it, but I can’t fix it.

I’m not alone. And “in industries ranging from electronics to farming to medical devices, the right to repair is gaining traction,” ABC News reported recently.

I want my right to repair.

“Anything that has a chip in it right now, is probably impossible to repair without using the manufacturer,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of The Repair Association, told ABC.

The operators of small repair shops say manufacturers have made it difficult to locate, buy and install the replacement parts, which are often pricey.

Louis Rossmann, who fixes laptops, is a Right to Repair activist with 1.6 million YouTube followers. “This is not something that’s unique to Apple, nor is it something that’s unique to the laptop repair industry,” Rossmann told ABC.

Apple says that “it’s expanding options for repairs, around the world, pointing to its independent repair program, which aims to help qualifying companies get access to its parts. And the company says customers should have convenient access to safe and reliable repair services,” ABC noted.

My late father would be outraged. Andrew N. Washington Sr. was a career postal worker. And for decades, he thrived in a side job as a master fix-it man. He was the guy who could fix any TV, thanks to invaluable skills he learned in the U.S. Army.

Back in the day, Daddy was the go-to TV repairman on Chicago’s South Side, from Bronzeville to South Shore to Pullman.

In those low-income and working-class neighborhoods, when the tube went on the fritz, there was no money to run out and buy a new one. So, you went to “Wash.”

Family, friends and neighbors lugged their Magnavox, Motorola, Philco and Zenith TVs to his door.

I remember him in our living room, hunched over those hulking electronic boxes, his deft fingers plying cathode ray tubes, vacuum tubes, transistors, transformers and jungles of wires. His electronic wizardry helped put food on our table.

When Daddy died suddenly in 1990, I found a dozen televisions in his basement, awaiting repairs, leaving bereft owners behind.

Today, hard-working entrepreneurs like my father, and their customers, deserve their right to repair.

Corporate behemoths have found still one more way to game our economic system to their lucrative profit. They have devised products that cannot be repaired or replaced without them.

The Federal Trade Commission warned in May that manufacturers are making repairs more difficult, by using adhesives that make parts difficult to replace, and limiting the availability of spare parts, tools, and software.

In July, President Joe Biden signed an executive order urging the FTC to develop regulations that would prohibit manufactures from such practices.

The agency subsequently issued a statement calling for greater enforcement. “Restricting consumers and businesses from choosing how they repair products can substantially increase the total cost of repairs, generate harmful electronic waste, and unnecessarily increase wait times for repairs,” the FTC said.

The Repair Association is working to help pass new legislation in Illinois and other states.

“It’s yours. You own it,” urges its website, repair.org. “You shouldn’t have to beg the manufacturer for permission to fix it when it breaks. Tell your legislator that you want the right to repair.”

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.