“It is one of the maxims in life that the larger the institution the greater the distance between the head and the body.” ---From The Quotations of Chairman Joe
It has become commonplace on the political wrong to criticize labor unions as being wholly out of touch with their membership. And, on balance this criticism is valid. For any organization worth its salt has to be large and the leadership that emerges becomes, by degrees and by definition, an elite. The same can also be said of the United States Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber, in the American Romantic version, is seen a group of civic-minded leaders who regularly gather to address the needs and aspirations of the local community. In days of yore this would typically involve the coming together of the leadership on Main Street what, referring to such gatherings in Grand Haven Michigan, I would in my youth refer to as the “Washington Street Aristocracy”. Washington Street, being of course, the name of the City’s Main Street. In attendance one would encounter the Presidents of the local banks, the downtown pharmacists, the owners of the downtown furniture, hardware, and appliance stores, the owners the local restaurants and hotels, the owners of local media, and representatives of the then emerging chain operations like McClellan’s downtown. These people would join forces to further the interests of the business district then the heart of commerce, seen as pumping life into community. It was, in my youth, the group that built what was then billed as the “world’s largest musical fountain” at the foot of Main Street, serving as an attraction to combat the emerging strip malls then beginning to make their appearance on the outlying Beacon Boulevard.
Today, the local chamber is as hollowed-out as is the rest of the economy. Gone are the owners of the hardware stores, the pharmacist and the hotel. In their place have emerged craft and novelty shops, small mom and pop operations. The real retail operations have been taken over by the regional and national chains. The old neighborhood grocery has given way to Meijer and Plumbs, the old hardware stores have been gobbled up first by the old W.T. Grant corporation to be superseded Meijer, and the old hotel has given way to Best Western and other Giants. The local pharmacist is now a mere employee of the regional ‘big box’ operations. The result is that the local Chamber of Commerce no longer represents the true moneyed interests of the community. Today at any Chamber meeting in rural or semi-rural America you will encounter more often than not a gathering of small merchants and corporate underlings, none of whom are empowered to put the weight of their corporate paymasters behind any decision under discussion. Where once stood the captains of commerce now sit the ensigns of activity. The result is that the collective production has diminished with their community standing. Where once the Chamber could produce a monument on Main Street, today their mighty labors call forth only the occasional sidewalk sale.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce continues to nurture the image of its local chapters being the ground upon which the movers and shakers meet to shape the future of the community. Likewise, the local chapter nurtures the myth that the national chamber is nothing more than the collection of the local body, with the interests of Main Street writ large on a national scale.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While the local chamber has been hollowed out to the point of near irrelevance, the national Chamber of Commerce has gone whoring after the Koch Brothers and foreign interests, financing a self-serving wrong-wing agenda that serves the interests of a relative handful of international financiers, foreign suppliers, and the Rescumlican partisan political agenda.
The difference is that as Labor has its own elites, these groups have historically supported and continue to support a wide range of issues from immigration reform, education, working conditions, minimum wage, health care, the environment and regulation to name a few, the Chamber has become a spokesman for international greed and the lackeys who support it. While one supports the middle class, the other has declared war upon it. This too is the face of modern Conservatism.