Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

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

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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.

Amid all the recent headlines about the US Chamber of Commerce, it's easy to forget that it does much more than work to derail climate legislation. The nation's largest business lobby, with more than 3 million member companies, takes positions on everything from financial regulation to judicial nominations to health care. That's why some companies that disagree with the Chamber's antiregulatory climate stance say they're sticking with the group. Their prepared statements start with some variation of: "We don't always agree with the Chamber, but. . ."


To be sure, a company that has never staked much of its profits or reputation on the environment can reasonably claim that the Chamber's dirty behavior isn't a relationship breaker. But what about companies that manufacture solar panels or took out full-page ads in the green issue of Vanity Fair? Belonging to the Chamber would seem to undermine their bottom lines, or at least pull the rug out from under their green marketing campaigns.


According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, at least 18 remaining members of the Chamber’s board publicly support federal climate policy. Bruce Freed, the president of the Center for Public Accountability, a shareholder activism group, is urging them to distance themselves from the Chamber.  "Where there is a fundamental disagreement with company values, with company business strategies," he says, "companies really do need to act on that. Its a matter of companies holding their trade associations accountable."


Here are six "green" companies that might be hurting themselves by remaining members of the nation's biggest stick in the mud on climate change:
 

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