When President Barack Obama recently spoke at the headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he strolled there. It's just across Lafayette Square. Obama quipped to his audience that if he'd brought over a fruitcake when he first moved in, maybe they would have gotten off on a better foot. Of course, usually it's the established neighbors who bring over the welcoming sweets. But in this case, the Chamber has been so busy lobbing rotten eggs Obama's way — spending tens of millions in attack ads to defeat Democrats and Obama's agenda in the last election — it simply hasn't had the time to bake any of them into a cake.
Under the leadership of Tom Donohue, the Chamber's president since 1997, the group has taken a hard-right turn, doing as much as any other lobby in the country to undermine Obama's health care reforms, financial regulations and clean energy goals.
You want to know why the middle class is struggling to maintain a modest standard of living, even as corporate profits soar? Thank the Chamber, which considers keeping workers powerless to be its primary function.
Its philosophy is that unions should be ground underfoot and that workers should remain as disposable as used Kleenex. For workers, this crushing disempowerment has resulted in the disappearance of their job security, health benefits, regular raises and pensions — everything that once laid a solid foundation for a middle class job and life.
The Chamber's unfettered free-market goals don't live in the same universe as Obama's. Still, the president did his best to seek common ground. His speech balanced appeasement with admonishment. Obama discussed his intention to work on business-friendly initiatives, hammer out more free trade deals, excise unnecessary regulation and reduce corporate taxes. Then there was the other part of the speech, where Obama discussed the responsibility of business to act in ways that benefit American workers. That was when the audience started mentally filing its nails.
Obama made the case that business success doesn't happen in a vacuum. Government invests in infrastructure, an educated work force and basic scientific research, all of which hugely benefit business. And with those investments should come some loyalty. "If we as a nation are going to invest in innovation, that innovation should lead to new jobs and manufacturing on our shores," Obama said. Otherwise, he said, the "social compact is broken," making "people feel as if the game is fixed."
But as Obama knows full well, the call for the Chamber to care about American workers is like asking the bulldozer to care about the trees in its way. Well before the banking crisis, American manufacturers were abandoning the country. From October 2000 to October 2009, America lost 5.5 million manufacturing jobs, largely because big business has no interest in upholding its end of the social compact. That deal was ripped up long ago, around the time corporate America figured out how to bust unions, exploit cheap labor overseas and subdue American workers by keeping them in constant fear of losing their jobs.
The Chamber's position on outsourcing couldn't be clearer: It's a love match. Donohue has personally extolled outsourcing's virtues while the Chamber has repeatedly used its lobbying might to derail Democrats' efforts to encourage acts of economic loyalty.
Last fall, the Chamber helped defeat a Democratic initiative that would have ended tax breaks for companies that outsourced jobs overseas only to import products back into the United States. The upshot is, U.S. taxpayers continue to subsidize their own job losses.
Obama told the Chamber that when he works to spur exports and cut corporate taxes, "the benefits can't just translate into greater profits and bonuses for those at the top. They have to be shared by American workers." But this call to decency and fairness is lost on the Chamber's leadership. What they hear instead, are fighting words — from a neighbor they are looking to evict.