Since it was founded in 1912, the US Chamber of Commerce has stood for a bunch of white-haired men in seersucker suits smiling benignly as they lead American commerce into the future. But in the last month, this patriotic institution — as American as Mom, apple pie, and campaign contributions — has found itself increasingly under attack.
The latest salvos have sought to knock the pillars out of this pillar of civil society, and while it is too late to know what lasting effect they will have, it seems likely that many people’s view of the Chamber of Commerce will never be quite the same.
First came a steady drum beat of resignations and denunciations by corporations fed up with the chamber’s knee-jerk resistance to climate change legislation.
Then anti-corporate pranksters The Yes Men mocked the organization Monday with a fake press conference claiming that the Chamber had changed its mind on climate change. This prompted a funny/sad exchange between the Yes Men fake flak and a real flak from the chamber, Eric Wohlschlegel, who arrived breathless at the phony conference to denounce the pretender — and save his job, no doubt.
Now comes an investigation by Mother Jones that undermines the very foundation of the chamber: that it actually represents vast swaths of American businesses.
The Chamber of Who?
In an article on the Mother Jones website, Josh Harkinson writes that the Chamber’s claim to represent “over 3 million businesses” falls far short of the truth. In fact, the real number may be closer to 200,000, and at best, a million, depending on how generous your definition of “represent.” Up until 1997, when the current Chamber president Tom Donahue took over, the Chamber said it had 200,000 members. Then, in the space of a press release, the new figure became “an underlying membership [italics added] of more than three million businesses and organizations of every size, sector, and region.”
From Mother Jones:
The term “underlying membership” was meant to convey, subtly, that most Chamber “members” were at best loosely affiliated with the group. Since then, the Chamber has come to completely ignore this distinction, but not before a July 2001 press release touting one of its many corporate partnerships explained:
“The United States Chamber of Commerce is comprised of 150,000 companies, 2,800 state and local chambers and 850 trade associations. More than 96 percent of members are small businesses with 100 or fewer employees. The 2,800 state and local chambers represent more than three million businesses and organizations of every size, sector and region.”
Only 354 of the country’s local and regional chambers have offered to enroll their members in the national chamber. Give these 354 groups a generous average membership of 2,600 and Harkinson comes up with the upper limit of one million bona-fide members of the US Chamber of Commerce.
The American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA) also opposes climate legislation, and also uses the same logic in calculating its membership, which means if you have a American Automobile Association (AAA) card, an affiliate of AHUA, your climate change stance is spoken for — by the AHUA. Think of that the next time you call AAA after you locked your keys in your car.