The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is quietly teaching locally owned businesses in communities across the country how to keep their workforces “union-free.”
While the “chamber of commerce” brand likely sounds like the benign group of people operating out of an office next to your local city hall, and while the name “U.S. Chamber of Commerce” sounds like an official government entity, the names are deceptive. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is actually the chief corporate lobbyist in Washington, DC.
According to campaign finance records obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics, the Chamber currently ranks #1 in lobbying expenditures for 2018, with $43.7 million spent so far this year. The group has also spent roughly $11 million on behalf of Republican candidates in the 2017-2018 election cycle, making them the fourth-largest outside political spender in the 2018 midterms. The group has spent as much as $144 million on lobbying in a single year, when the Chamber lobbied against former President Barack Obama’s push for financial regulation and reforming the American healthcare system in 2009.
As the chief lobbying arm of multinational corporations, the group having a decidedly anti-union bent makes sense. However, their role in influencing local and state-level Chambers of Commerce remains largely obscured to most American small business owners. This is what makes the slew of anti-union seminars local chambers are hosting across the country so insidious.
In an article for Splinter News, writer Hamilton Nolan exposed one such seminar hosted by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce called “remaining union-free.” The October seminar in Indianapolis will be led by attorneys Kenneth Yerkes and Terry Dawson, who are both with anti-union law firm Barnes & Thornburg.
“[Yerkes] has bargained with and run union avoidance campaigns against virtually every union in the country, and regularly trains employers on the best practices for remaining union free,” his Barnes & Thornburg bio reads.
“[Dawson] has substantial experience arbitrating on behalf of employers, battling to reach his clients’ objectives and to protect their interests and reputation. Terry has also helped clients manage strikes and lockouts, and has handled decision and effects bargaining, midterm contract negotiations, and plant closings,” Terry Dawson’s bio reads. “He has presented the Indiana Chamber of Commerce program “Remaining Union Free” for 20 years and regularly provides training to managers and supervisors on the best practices and strategies for remaining union-free.”
However, the seminars aren’t just limited to Indiana. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce hosted a similar seminar in January. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce hosts a regularly occurring “remaining union-free” seminar, as well as the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Even though the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s website only lists local chambers that meet its accreditation standards (Excel link), state chambers like the Indiana organization are affiliated with the group’s Council of State Chambers (COSC). All of the aforementioned chambers are listed as members of the COSC on its website.
The Indiana Chamber makes it clear on its website that the seminar is only for bonafide members of management at corporations, and that representatives from unions are explicitly not allowed entry.
“Please note: The discussion will be frank. The use of recording devices is strictly prohibited,” the event notice reads.
While it may seem shocking to some for employers to pay to attend such a blatantly anti-worker seminar, the workshop fits squarely into the strategy the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was founded on. In 1912, former President William Howard Taft stated a desire for there to be an organized voice for industry in Washington. This call for a centralized business lobby came during the same year as the historic Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, when thousands of textile workers started an organized work stoppage in response to low pay.
In August of 1971, former Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell wrote what is now known as the Powell Memo. The memo, which was addressed to U.S. Chamber director Eugene Sydnor, Jr., outlined a strategy aimed at increasing the influence of big business in academia, the judicial system, and the media to subsequently allow big business to become ensconced in Washington’s power structures for decades to come. The Powell Memo envisioned the U.S. Chamber as the only organization fit to spearhead this effort.
“Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations,” Powell wrote. “The role of the National Chamber of Commerce is therefore vital. Other national organizations … should join in the effort, but no other organizations appear to be as well situated as the Chamber.”
“Also — and this is of immeasurable merit — there are hundreds of local Chambers of Commerce which can play a vital supportive role,” he added.
The Chamber’s strategy appears to have paid off. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Reserve shows that since the Powell Memo was written, corporate profits have been steadily increasing (aside from a brief dip during the Great Recession) while both membership in labor unions and workers’ share of corporate profits have precipitously declined.
Given that the gap between the super-rich and the poorest half of Americans shows no signs of closing anytime soon, workers’ attempts to unionize may become more commonplace. Anti-union trainings like the one in Indiana will likely remain a popular option for businesses that refuse to accede to workers’ demands and seek to crush their unions.
Logan Espinoza is a freelance contributor specializing in economic issues. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and daughter. Contact him at logan DOT espinoza AT yahoo DOT com.
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