03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Labor Increasingly Confident That The Chamber's Time Has Passed

The White House's increasingly aggressive posture on the Chamber of Commerce has emboldened like-minded critics of the business lobby to speak confidently of the group's diminishing influence.

In recent months the Obama White House has worked to build a business-outreach strategy that, more or less, circumvents the Chamber. Administration officials, explaining their approach, argued that the defection of members from the Chamber's ranks (over its antediluvian position on climate change) gave them pause. More to the point, Obama's staff was internally peeved that the Chamber -- after applauding the bailout of banks and the economic stimulus package -- would launch a major campaign to derail the president's effort at regulatory reform. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Valerie Jarrett, the president's senior aide, called the campaign "regrettable," "wasteful," and an antiquated approach to politics.

Echoing the administration's line, labor leaders have (as they traditionally do) whacked the Chamber's position on a host of economic-related issues. But in a tone that is increasingly confident and decidedly aggressive, they have begun to argue that the business lobby's time is passing.

"They are tied up in the old economy," said Richard Trumka, president of the union conglomerate AFL-CIO. "They liked it because some of their members made outrageous profits during that time. But it is a different world. We know that what happened in the past won't work now. They have to change to the new realities but they won't do that."

Trumka's prognosis was shared by a host of other labor leaders, many of whom said that while they respected the Chamber tremendous financial resources they also sensed the organization's clout within Washington was diminished.

"The Chamber is definitely losing some of their juice, they are being marginalized more and more on the far right with the remnants of the Republican Party," said one high-ranking labor official "It's not just workers that are fighting them. Their own members now are even starting to jump ship."

The Chamber and its defenders, naturally, don't see things this way. The group was a major lobbying force during the third quarter of 2009, spending $34,690,000 (or more than quadruple the amount it spent in the 2nd quarter). Moreover, it has proven successful to this point in getting basic changes to banking policies and regulatory reform watered down or outright held-up in Congress. Above anything else, it's been in the news.

"Why is everyone writing about us if we are so irrelevant?" said Bruce Josten, the group's executive vice president of government affairs. "Why would the president a week and a half ago name us? Because of our irrelevance or lack of influence? Because we aren't effective? I would suggest the exact opposite. When the president decides to single out one business organization among the thousands that exist - none of who support his legislation -- I would suggest that is a sign of respect of us as an adversary to that specific bill. I would suggest it is recognition of the fact that we clearly had influence... You tell me how that's being less influential?"

But much of the Chamber's recent run in the press has been for unfavorable stories. Over the summer, Wal-Mart, Target and Kelly Services Inc. aired concerns with the organization's stance on health care reform. That was followed, months later, by major companies like Apple, Nike, Pacific Gas & Electric and Exelon quitting the Chamber over its opposition to climate change legislation. Chamber defenders were quick to note that those groups represents just a small segment of their "three million members" only to see the progressive magazine Mother Jones break news that the organization's membership was closer to 300,000. The day that Jarrett took her public whacks at the lobby, meanwhile, a group of performance artists staged a mock press conference in which they pretended to be Chamber officials announcing a major shift in its position on climate change.

All of which has boosted the confidence of the labor community as it battles its traditional foe. The environment, they firmly believe, is simply too toxic for the Chamber to continue to hold on to old views of business and economic policy.

"I think what the financial crisis has done is exposed that big banks and big businesses and big corporations manipulate the system so that even if everyone else is damaged they come out on top," said Stephen Lerner, Director of SEIU's Private Equity Project. "There is a growing feeling that when the Chamber automatically opposes any kind of reform that would stop banks from literally causing another crisis they don't really care about the country -- they care about a small group of financial bankers."

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