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Chamber of Commerce vs. Populists

Good thing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wasn’t around during the American Revolution. Instead of "The British are coming," the cry would be:

The populists are coming. The populists are coming!

Amusing as it is to imagine Chamber President Tom Donohue riding bareback through the night, lantern in hand, in support of the colonies’ British overlords, it seems the Chamber really does have its legal briefs in a ruffle over presidential candidates who are challenging the way Big Business calls the shots in this nation.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Chamber is "alarmed at the increasingly populist tone of the 2008 political campaign."

So, the leader of the nation’s pinstriped set issued this dignified warning:

We plan to build a grassroots business organization so strong that when it bites you in the butt, you bleed.

Donohue promised to spend "millions of dollars to defeat candidates deemed to be anti-business"—but of course, has no intention of disclosing sources for this funding, which he indicated would be in excess of the approximately $60 million the Chamber spent in the last presidential cycle.

Donohue continued:

"I’m concerned about anti-corporate and populist rhetoric from candidates for the presidency, members of Congress and the media," he said. "It suggests to us that we have to demonstrate who it is in this society that creates jobs, wealth and benefits—and who it is that eats them."

My, my. Such angry language. Might there be a class war afoot?

The class war label, of course, is how the reactionary anti-working types denounce us in the union movement whenever we dare protest the inequities of CEOs making 364 times the average pay of a blue-collar wage earner in 2006, compared with 42 times in 1980.

Or when we note that between 1947 and 2005, U.S. worker productivity grew by 370 percent, while wages grew by less than half that amount.

Or point out that the income of the wealthiest .01 percent in this country skyrocketed by 513 percent between 1973 and 2005, while the incomes of middle-income earners rose by 23 percent in that same period.

Corporate Republicans, like the Chamber, fear more than just the Democratic candidates. Whatever else his failings, Democratic advisor Chris Lehane had a telling insight into the Big Business psyche. He recently told National Public Radio that while sitting in a "Green Room," waiting to appear on a cable news show, he learned from his Republican counterparts that the only candidate they hate more than John Edwards is Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee sounds like a populist. But there are progressive populists like John Edwards, and then there are Huey Long populists. The Chamber may see Huckabee as opposing Big Business, but Huckabee is no friend of workers—as I noted here last week, Huckabee was the first to cross the Writers Guild picket line to appear on Jay Leno’s "The Tonight Show."

Along with battling the Big-Money Chamber types with our on-the-ground, people-powered political mobilization this year, we in the union movement need to make sure we make clear the distinction between these brands of populism. And Democrats running for all levels of office must make it clear who’s on the side of working families.

Blue-collar workers flocked to Reagan in the 1980s because they thought he offered them something they could no longer get from the Democratic party.

That can’t happen again.

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Tula Connell

Tula Connell