A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

U.S. Chamber puts off small biz, workers

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri. or Sat., Nov. 22, 23 or 24

The best route from a slow recovery to a stable economy is one where employers and workers are partners in a cooperative venture to prosper, and instead of standing in the way of employees who seek the middle class by unionizing, the nation’s biggest umbrella organization for business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, should encourage workers to have a stake in their companies.

Think of it as getting along with rowdy relatives at Thanksgiving.

Labor unions aren’t the only ones that see this as a way out of the Great Recession. Small businesses agree and see differences between themselves and the U.S. Chamber. More than 3,000 small business owners signed a petition stating that the national Chamber doesn’t represent their interests.

“I hope the U.S. Chamber of Commerce realizes that good jobs begin by ending the corporate-takeover economy that allows unscrupulous employers to cheat employees and cut corners to boost profits and gain an edge over more fair-minded competitors,” said Kimberly Freeman Brown, director of American Rights at Work, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates for workers and the right to form unions.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Chamber operates with an annual budget of about $150 million and 300 staff members. It’s led by Thomas Donohue, who took office in 1997, when he made it more politically conservative. That’s contributed to more moderate business leaders, such as some in the Business Roundtable, separating themselves from the U.S. Chamber in controversial issues.

Even Business Week magazine warned of Donahue’s “assault on unions,” adding that “polls show strong public support for giving workers their piece of an expanding economic pie.”

Indeed, in the last 15 years, the U.S. Chamber has opposed parental leave, improved job-safety measures, an increase in the minimum wage, health-care reform, and Project Labor Agreements for public construction projects.

Also, it’s been lobbying to ease up on a law prohibiting bribing foreign officials and last month filed suit against a Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring American energy companies to disclose payments to foreign governments.

Further, it’s worked closely with anti-union forces including the no-tax extremist Grover Norquist (a one-time Chamber speechwriter).

Most small businesses are positive about unions – or at least neutral, according to one of the Chamber’s own polls. About 52% of small businesses said “labor unions have a positive impact” or “no impact” on job creation, according to a 2010 Chamber survey.

Unsurprisingly, the Chamber spun the findings to claim, “While 30% of small business owners feel unions have a positive impact on job creation in the U.S., a plurality (46%) feel unions have a negative impact, and 17% of small business owners feel that way ‘strongly’.”

However, the real numbers are clear: 46% see a negative impact; 22% neither positive nor negative; and 30% positive impact (with 8% responding that unions are strongly positive in creating jobs). So, adding the 30% who say unions have a positive impact to the 22% who say the union impact is neither positive nor negative results in a majority of 52% who do not think unions have a negative impact.

That corresponds to a survey conducted by American Rights at Work, which asked many more small businesses about their attitudes toward unions. More than 51% of small businesses and self-employed workers “were strongly worried that unions have been weakened so much that our economy has actually been hurt”; 58% “strongly agreed unions are necessary to protect the working person.”

Further, 80% of self-identified small business owners agreed that “strong unions make the free market system stronger,” and 54% strongly agreed with that statement.

Besides small businesses, critics of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have included health providers and even local Chambers of Commerce. In 2009, about 5,000 medical professionals petitioned the American Medical Association to drop its Chamber membership after the U.S. Chamber sought to hire some economist to legitimize pre-ordained conclusions on the Affordable Health Care for America Act before research was even conducted.

Elsewhere, the U.S. Chamber changed its membership claims from 3 million to 300,000 after the New York Chamber of Commerce complained that the national organization inflated membership numbers by counting local members who aren’t dues-paying members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The U.S. economy will grow again when workers’ voices are heard and they earn wages decent enough to be consumers, and when cooperative employers with satisfied workers regain their advantages over out-sourcing firms that enrich management and stockholders at the expense of those who produce goods and services.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce must represent its small-business members and the interests of communities more than huge profitable corporations. Otherwise, the national version of the group would be less about Thanksgiving and more about being a turkey.

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