Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

Get my RSS |

US Chamber Shrinks Membership 90%

A day after Mother Jones exposed the US Chamber of Commerce's inflated membership number, the Chamber quietly backed off the figure in its public statements. At a Washington press conference Wednesday morning unveiling the Chamber's Campaign for Free Enterprise, Chamber officials repeatedly cited a membership of 300,000. That's a tenth as many members as the Chamber claimed a day earlier, when a press release for the Washington event said the Chamber represented "more than 3 million businesses and organizations of every size, sector, and region."

Since 1997, the "3 million" figure has appeared in print more than 200 times in newspapers and broadcast outlets of all sizes, including, in the past year, the New York Times, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, the UK Guardian, the Associated Press, Roll Call, Congressional Quarterly, and National Public Radio. By contrast, the 300,000 figure, which appears nowhere on the Chamber's website, is cited in the news database Lexis-Nexis only three times--infrequently enough to be mistaken for a typo. The smaller number was used on October 9th by CNN, November 12, 2008 by the Denver Post, and August, 2003 by the Journal of Public Affairs. After getting the membership number correct, the Denver Post joined the rest of the media this April, describing the Chamber as "a business advocacy group with more than 3 million members."

As Mother Jones detailed on Tuesday, the Chamber's assertion that it represents "3 million" businesses is most likely based on claiming the membership of 2,800 state and local chambers of commerce as its own. But while local chambers are often dues-paying members of the US Chamber, they aren't chartered or controlled by it, nor does membership grant them a say in electing its leaders or setting its policies, which are determined by a self-appointed board composed of large companies. Moreover, local chambers do little to support the national group financially. The Greater New York Chamber of Commerce pays annual dues to the US Chamber of only $1000. That means the 2,800 local chambers probably contribute less than 3 percent of the US Chamber's $100 million budget.

As recently as 2001, before the the US Chamber fully embraced its accounting gimmick, it claimed only 150,000 corporate members.

There is, of course, a semantic difference between claiming to "represent" 3 million businesses and claiming those businesses as members. Yet the distinction has been lost on the media and even occasionally on the Chamber itself. "We have over 3 million members, and we don't comment on the comings and goings of our membership," Chamber spokesman Eric Wholschlegel told the New York Times last month in a story about the utility PG&E's departure from the Chamber over its climate policy. After three more high-profile companies quit the Chamber, the LA Times wrote, "The US Chamber of Commerce touts itself as the world's largest business federation, boasting 3 million members. Err, make that 2,999,996." The Times' math would have been correct, if it had subtracted another 2,699,996 companies.

Even when granting the US Chamber its semantic tricks, it's not certain that local chambers are comfortable with its "3 million" number. "They don't represent me," Mark Jaffe, CEO of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, told me Tuesday.

Chamber leaders seem to agree, given their decision to scale back their membership number by 90 percent today. The question is when the rest of the media will notice. Ignoring the Chamber's new number, an AP story on the Chamber's press conference, published Wednesday afternoon on the website of the Washington Post, said "the Chamber of Commerce claims a membership of 3 million businesses and organizations." The number most likely came from the Chamber's original press release. The Sierra Club promptly wrote to the AP asking for a correction.

Here are 17 other news organizations that have reported the "3 million" number since 2008:

Yo, Chamber of Commerce, You Speakin' For Me?

Leaders of some of the largest urban chambers of commerce are distancing themselves from the US Chamber in the wake of recent controversies over its inflated membership numbers, undemocratic structure, and right-wing policy positions. In recent interviews, they strongly disagreed with the national group's positions on health care and climate change and disputed its implicit claim to speak for their members.


"They don’t represent me," says Mark Jaffe, CEO of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, which is a dues-paying member of the national group.  He added that the Chamber's "parochial interests"—large corporations that control its self-appointed board of directors—"are well represented."


Jaffe also scoffed at the US Chamber's oft-repeated claim to "represent 3 million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions." Yesterday Mother Jones questioned the number, which appears to be based on the idea that the Chamber "represents" the members of the New York Chamber and similar local groups. That number of members would comprise more than half of the 5.7 million employers in the United States. "They are playing games" with their numbers, Jaffe said. "They don’t have half the businesses in America as registered, dues-paying members."


The New York Chamber has no plans to leave the national Chamber (its annual membership dues are only $1000 per year), yet neither is Jaffe happy with the group. "We get involved in some of their activities," like working to modernize airports, he said, "but we don’t agree with all of their principles either, like their position on health care. You have to be selfish, blind, or stupid not to want everybody to be required to have health care."


Jaffe’s objections to the US Chamber’s policies were echoed by Rob Black, vice-president of public policy for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. "We take a fundamentally different approach than the US Chamber," he said, adding that while the national Chamber opposes the Waxman-Markey climate bill, "we support a market-driven cap-and-trade system. It’s good for business, but it’s also a good way to try to spur innovation and new technologies."

The Chamber's Inconvenient Truth

Faced with a wave of bad publicity over his organization's obstructionist role in the climate debate, US Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue is fighting back. "We don't have regrets about our position, and we're not going to change it," he told reporters yesterday. The National Journal also published a letter from Donohue in which he told Chamber members that he wasn't opposed to tackling climate change and urged them to stand united for a business-friendly solution. But many of the claims he and other Chamber officials are making are contradicted by interviews with Chamber board members and its own lobbying record. 

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice-president for government affairs, said that its climate policy—which led Nike and Apple to quit the group—came out of its energy and environment committee. But that assertion was flatly contradicted by the committee chair, Donald Sterhan, in an interview with Mother Jones last week. "There was no vote," Sterhan said, describing the committee's role. "It's just a discussion about the concerns, the risks, the potential threats. It was really more of an information discussion." He added that "there was no action taken" on the committee to approve any of the Chamber's positions on climate change.

Josten also said that Nike was the only Chamber member to question how its policies were made But according to a spokesman for a company that participated on the Chamber’s energy committee, several companies sought a forum to change the Chamber’s approach and were rebuffed. (He requested that his company not be named because it was concerned about the Chamber's response to its criticism.) Members of the energy committee that questioned the Chamber's climate stance "were told that basically this was not the forum to do it," he says. "There's basically no outlet for changing the policy."

With the US Chamber of Commerce weakened by recent defections over its climate policy, its foes are moving in for the kill. Or at least milking the whole thing for some laughs. From the SEIU comes this tale of thwarted romance:

 

H/T Pete Altman's Switchboard Blog.

Tue Nov. 3, 2015 2:13 PM EST
Fri Aug. 14, 2015 3:01 PM EDT
Thu May. 21, 2015 4:46 PM EDT
Mon Apr. 13, 2015 9:25 AM EDT
Tue Dec. 16, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Fri Nov. 7, 2014 6:12 PM EST