AMERICAN RIGHTS AT WORK: The US Chamber's Anti-Union Agenda

March 14, 2013
Capital Research Center
news photo

(originally published on July 27, 2008)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s most powerful business lobbying organization1, has been campaigning against unions, fair labor practices, increases in the minimum wage, and legal protections for America’s workers for nearly a century.  The Chamber’s anti-union initiatives are just one part of its multi-issue agenda.  Unlike other anti-union organizations, this prominent lobbying force does not hide its alignment with big business.

Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Chamber has an annual budget of $150 million2 and 300 staff members.3  With President Thomas J. Donohue at the helm, annual contributions to the hamber from its largest corporate members rose from $600,000 to $90 million in less than a decade.4  Since he took office in 1997, Donohue has built a more aggressive and politically-powerful Chamber not afraid to take on controversial issues at the request of its large corporate donors and the Bush White House.5  This direction has caused the Business Roundtable and other moderate members of the business community to distance themselves from the organization.6

Even when Donohue first took office Business Week expressed caution at his “frontal assault on unions,” commenting that “Polls show strong public support for giving workers their piece of an expanding economic pie.”7  Although an increasing number of its member organizations pursue cooperative and socially-responsible labor relations, the Chamber continues to advocate against unions, and appears to be ramping up its attack. 

The Role of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the Anti-Union Network


  • In 2004, the Chamber spent $24.5 million lobbying the federal government.8
  • The Chamber works closely with the Bush administration9 and prominent anti-labor conservatives on Capitol Hill such as Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-GA), head of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections.  An anti-workplace safety zealot, Norwood was given the Chamber’s Spirit of Enterprise Award for his pro-Chamber voting record.  Norwood caused controversy this year for his insensitivity during Congressional hearings on the Sago mineworkers tragedy, and for lobbying loudly against renewal of the Voting Rights Act.
  • The Chamber lobbies to oppose pro-worker legislation, including the Family Time and Workplace Flexibility Act, Fair Minimum Wage Act, and an expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act.10
  • Among the Chamber’s legislative priorities is opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act , which would strengthen labor law and provide workers with the right to union representation via the card check process when a majority present signed union authorization cards to their employers.11  On May 4, 2006, the Chamber sent a letter to all Republican members of Congress urging them to support the Secret Ballot Protection Act,12 which would outlaw union recognition through card check.  The Chamber also operates a website urging its members to pressure Congress on the issue.13


  • Its recent litigation efforts include an attempt to strike down a California law prohibiting the use of tax dollars for anti-union activity, and litigation to overturn county “Peace Agreement” ordinances.14
  • The Chamber recently filed amicus briefs in two significant cases before the National Labor Relations Board to argue for rulings that limit the ability of workers to form unions.  One case could define millions of workers as supervisors, revoking their right to organize, and the other could effectively quash the card check method of organizing.15
  • The Chamber has also lobbied the Bush administration on nominations to the National Labor Relations Board,16 and succeeded in placing one of their staffers on the Board.  In 2002, President Bush appointed Michael Bartlett, then Director of Labor Law Policy for the Chamber, to sit on the five-member Board in a recess appointment that lasted nearly one year. 

Sponsoring propaganda

For decades, labor-community coalitions have joined together to hold corporations accountable for their treatment of employees.  Recently, the Chamber published a briefing book aimed at attacking the motives and methods of these so-called ‘corporate campaigns.’17  The author, Jarol B. Manheim, a George Washington University political scientist, not only villifies corporate campaigns, but finds danger in any critique of the corporate world.  Manheim previously testified about the subject before Rep. Norwood’s House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections in 2002,18 and also serves as a consultant on anti-union matters, having written a confidential “Positioning Memo” to help Verizon in its intense efforts to fight its employees’ union activity.19

The Chamber is reportedly behind the launch of a new, aggressive propaganda campaign against unions by “notorious DC lobbyist” Richard Berman.  In February 2006, with the assistance of Chamber labor lobbyist Randel Johnson,20 Berman created the Center for Union Facts, a new front group responsible for a steady stream of anti-union TV commercials and full-page ads in major daily newspapers. 

  • The Center for Union Facts’ legislative agenda is strikingly similar to the Chamber’s.  Berman has admitted to launching the Center for the purpose of halting workers’ ability to form unions through card check and to support the Chamber-backed Secret Ballot Protection Act sponsored by Charlie Norwood, which would outlaw the currently voluntary card check process.21  Berman also recently divulged to The Wall Street Journal that the Center was formed to “wage a campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act,” bipartisan legislation that would require employers to recognize unions formed by the card check process, which the Chamber also adamantly opposes.22
  • Berman has utilized Chamber connections for fundraising. Berman told The New York Times that he asked Chamber of Commerce officials at a state conference to recommend that businesses in their states donate to his anti-union campaign.23  Berman has declined to say who has pumped $3 million into his group, beyond claiming that funding comes from corporations, foundations, trade associations, and individuals.24  Randel Johnson has repeatedly denied any Chamber funding of the Center, yet admitted “he had served as an adviser to the Center.”25
  • Berman does have longstanding ties with the Chamber, having served as its labor law director, planning union avoidance strategies for the organization from 1972-74.26

Connections to players in the anti-union movement

  • A number of key players in the conservative movement have worked for the Chamber, including Grover Norquist, who served as the Chamber’s chief speechwriter in the 1980s.
  • The Chamber does not pursue its anti-union agenda alone, it coordinates with a number of players in the anti-union movement.  For instance, it participates in Grover Norquist’s Alliance for Worker Freedom “Labor Reform Working Group” meetings.  The agenda of the December 2005 meeting of this group focused on a range of union-related issues, including card check, project labor agreements, and the Department of Labor’s new database on union information.27  Attendees included Richard Berman, along with representatives from the Chamber, the DOL, the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors, Senator Bill Frist’s office, and Rep. Charlie Norwood’s office.

You'd think a group called the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (CDW) would be dedicated to promoting the needs and desires of America's workers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, CDW spreads half-truths and lies about the Employee Free Choice Act to wage an ill-conceived assault on the rights and opportunities of millions of men and women across the country.  

Here's the real scoop on the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace...

CDW is a front group for business associations, industry lobbying groups, and right-wing policy centers who are against workers getting a fair shake in this economy. Its financial backers include some of the most virulent anti-worker and anti-union organizations in the country, including:

  • the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s most powerful business lobbying organization,
  • the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a group whose biggest member is Wal-Mart, the poster child for low wages,
  • and the Associated Builders and Contractors, an association of anti-union contractors who fight against workers having unions to improve their wages and safety on the job.

CDW is doing the dirty work for CEOs and corporate special interests. Too ashamed to be fighting publicly against policies that would provide workers with real economic opportunities, these companies instead use their deep pockets and powerful influence to fund CDW’s dishonest PR and lobbying campaign.

The CEOs and multimillion dollar business industry groups backing CDW don’t care about democracy or privacy. They’re distorting the truth because they want to stop workers from having a better standard of living, access to health care, job security, and the rest of the benefits that accompany union membership.  These same groups oppose everything from paid sick days to fair pay and even the hugely popular Family and Medical Leave Act. It's unbelievable that business interests would suddenly care about privacy now, when corporations increasingly monitor employees’ every move – including e-mail, phone calls, personal belongings, and even interactions outside of the workplace.

CDW spreads misinformation.  Contrary to the lies and distortions displayed in CDW’s new TV ad and on its website, the Employee Free Choice Act does not take secret ballots away from workers. The legislation instead offers employees an alternative to the current, broken system that is slanted heavily in favor of management against workers. In fact, the bill would ensure that workers can choose their own union formation process, either through majority sign-up or a National Labor Relations Board election.

CDW’s own data and research is flawed. Instead of using well-respected academic research and public opinion surveys to test the merits and support for the Employee Free Choice Act, CDW released a poll in April 2008 claiming widespread opposition to the bill. However, even the most conservative political scientists and pundits could easily review the poll’s loaded questions and determine that it in no way accurately tested the public’s perceptions on the issue.

American Rights at Work will

continue separating fact from fiction, exposing the deceptive front groups that stand in the way of economic progress for workers in this struggling economy and much-needed labor law reform.

1. The Center for Public Integrity, Lobby Watch, Top 100 Companies and Organizations.
2. Jeffrey Birnbaum, “A Quiet Revolution in Business Lobbying: Chamber of Commerce Helps Bush Agenda,” The Washington Post, 5 Feb. 2005: A1.
3. U.S. Chamber of Commerce website, “About the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” accessed 12 June 2006.
4. Birnbaum A1.
5. Richard L. Berke, “Clinton Finds a Friendlier Chamber of Commerce,” New York Times, 14 Apr. 1993; Richard Miniter, “Clinton's unlikely boosters – U.S. Chamber of Commerce backs Bill Clinton's economic policies,” Insight on the News, 29 Mar. 1993; Birnbaum A1; P.B. Gray, “Inside the Chamber Under Thomas Donohue, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has become a probusiness powerhouse; Not everyone is celebrating,” CFO Magazine, 1 June 2006.
6. Gray.
7. Mary Beth Regan and Amy Borrus, “Lock ‘N Load at the Chamber of Commerce,” Business Week, 8 Sept. 1997.
8.“Washington in Brief: Chamber Spent Record $53 Million in Lobbying,” The Washington Post, 15 Feb. 2005.
9. Birnbaum A1.
10. U.S. Senate Office of Public Records, U.S. Lobby Registration & Reporting Disclosure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (1, 2).
11. U.S. Chamber of Commerce website, “Union Recognition – Secret Ballot Elections and Card Check Coercion,” accessed 12 June 2006.
12. Fawn Johnson, “Chamber Urges Republican Lawmakers To Ban 'Card-Check,' Require Elections,” Daily Labor Report, BNA Inc., 8 May 2006.
13. U.S. Chamber of Commerce website, “Union Recognition – Secret Ballot Elections and Card Check Coercion.”
14. Peace agreements generally stipulate that government contractors agree to allow unions to organize without running a contentious campaign, and unions agree not to engage in strikes or picketing against these employers. U.S. Chamber of Commerce website, “NCLC list of active cases,” accessed 12 June 2006.
15. Brief of Amici Curiae the Chamber of Commerce of the United States , the Ohio Hospital Association and the Society for Human Resource Management, Oakwood Healthcare, Inc., Sept. 2003; Brief of Amici Curiae, Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America and the Council on Labor Law Equality in support of Petitioners, Dana Corp. /Metaldyne Corp, July 2004.
16. U.S. Senate Office of Public Records, U.S. Lobby Registration & Reporting Disclosure Addendum for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
17. Jarol B. Manheim, “Trends in Union Corporate Campaigns,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 2005.
18. Jarol B. Manheim, Testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, 23 July 2002.
19. Steven Syre, “Battle Preparations,” The Boston Globe, 5 Aug. 2003.
20. Steven Greenhouse, “Group Starts Anti-Union Campaign,” The New York Times, 14 Feb. 2006: C1.
21. Greenhouse C1; Diane Lewis, “Hub radio stations to air anti-union ads,” The Boston Globe, 22 Feb. 2006.
22. Kris Maher, “Sign of a Possible Power Shift In Congress Have Unions Going All Out to Reach Voters,” The Wall Street Journal, 28 Aug. 2006: A2.
23. Greenhouse C1.
24. “Wal-Mart denies it backs anti-union group,” Associated Press, 26 May 2006.
25. Greenhouse C1.
26. David Whitford, “Labor's Lost Chance,” The Washington Post, 28 Sept. 1998: C3.
27. Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington, media release 22 June 2006.
28. Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington, media release 22 June 2006.
29. U.S. Chamber of Commerce website, “About the U.S. Chamber of Commerce,” accessed 12 June 2006.
30. Jeffrey Birnbaum, “A Quiet Revolution in Business Lobbying: Chamber of Commerce Helps Bush Agenda,” The Washington Post, 5 Feb. 2005: A1.