Working Class Fight Back Needed
by Angus McFarland
In November of 2020, with the Omicron variant in full swing, 62% of Portland, Maine residents voted yes on a ballot question to increase the minimum wage in Portland from $13 to $15 by 2024, with a stipulation that during a state of emergency, there would be a hazard pay minimum rate of $22.50 an hour for essential workers. The opinion was widespread among workers that if they were to risk their health, and lives, to continue performing essential services, they ought to be able to afford to live in the increasingly expensive city where they work.
The Portland Chamber of Commerce did not share this opinion. They sued to have the law struck from the books or, failing that, to have implementation delayed until January 1, 2022. The accepted and regular practice in Portland is to have ballot initiatives go into effect 30 days after passing. Their lawsuit to overturn the ballot question failed, but the court accepted the delayed implementation. City Council then declared, on January 3rd, 2022, that the state of emergency was over, causing front-line workers to lose both the current hazard pay rate of $20.50 and the new rate of $22.50 they had voted for. At the same time, City Council reinstated mask mandates, making it clear that the declaration was only about lowering wages, and not based on the true state of the pandemic. Portland’s minimum wage earners today make the same $13 an hour as in 2020, only $0.25 above the state minimum wage, while the cost of living in Portland is much higher than in the rest of the state.
Some might think of Chambers as a home-towney organization standing up for the small local businessman. They work hard to maintain this fiction, but in reality state and local Chambers are highly influenced by the US Chamber, and the US Chamber is in turn dominated by a handful of mega-corporations. To these corporations, maintaining the impression that the Chamber of Commerce represents small and local businesses is very valuable as public relations cover. If corporate messaging and priorities can seem to be coming from shopkeepers and chefs near you, they can bypass the entirely reasonable mistrust that these corporations have earned.
Chamber of commerce organizations, at local, state, national, and indeed international levels, are devoted to undermining any attempt at advancing the interests of workers through democratic means. This year in Portland, the Chamber funded the “Enough is Enough” campaign against another minimum wage raise attempt, among other ballot questions. The Maine Chamber of Commerce worked against two progressive tax bills which would increase taxes on the rich by income and estate respectively. In Massachusetts, the Chamber of Commerce led a group opposing the recent Fair Share Amendment, a small increase in taxes on income over one million dollars to fund public infrastructure and education. In every community across the United States, local Chambers are fighting tooth and nail to ensure that no laws are passed which might benefit workers, and if they cannot prevent their passage, they seek to find ways to delay or get around them. This includes minimum wage laws and progressive taxes as well as worker safety protections, health care, and the right to organize unions.
Union busting is a specialty among Chambers of Commerce. Aside from working to curtail workers’ rights through the law, they also hold forums and seminars to disseminate union-busting techniques and strategies. A few agenda items from one of these seminars held by the Indiana Chamber in 2018 include: “The tactics unions will use to trap you into committing unfair labor practices,” “Your right to speak – how to advocate your union-free philosophy without violating the law,” and “Early positive outcomes from the Trump (national labor relations) board.”
The US Chamber is the national equivalent of these local Chambers. It was the second largest dark money spender in 2016 federal races (beaten only by the NRA), the largest in congressional races, and the largest in 75% of races where they spent any money. They buy mostly Republicans, but also Democrats where that party has a strong hold on local politics. The enormous fountain of money that Chambers represent ensures that candidates will compete for their favor by being more “business friendly” than their opponents. This puts a heavy thumb on the legislative scale in favor of employers–one important reason why it is so difficult to affect real improvements in workers’ lives through capitalist democracy.
It is clear that the harm done by the Chamber of Commerce system, and corporate influence in politics more broadly, is enormous and reaches into every corner of our economic and political life. For too long it has been allowed to use its prodigious wealth to stack the deck against workers, collaborating with corporate non-profits and think tanks to tip elections and referendums in favor of the exploiting class. Understanding its reach and goals is a start, but to begin to fight back against its influence, we must create countervailing organizations of the working class: unions in the workplace, a worker’s party to fight in the political arena, and a powerful mass movement to back them. Only a unified organization would be able to pull together the various parts of the labor movement to confront the US Chamber nationally and coordinate all of the local struggles against the machinations of state and regional Chambers of Commerce.
Image Credit: Gage Filmore via Flickr // CC BY-SA 4.0