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More Questions about the US Chamber's Membership Number Claim

Pete Altman

Posted October 22, 2009 in Solving Global Warming

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With more voices saying clearly that US Chamber of Commerce does not represent them, the Chamber's membership numbers are looking more and more questionable.

Businesses in Colorado and Wisconsin are speaking up to say the US Chamber does not represent them.

But I'm going to focus on the comments of Tony Sheridan, the CEO and President of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, who called in to today's OnPoint with Tom Ashbrook radio program discussion of the US Chamber, climate and other issues to say

The US Chamber does not speak for the local chambers. I want to make that point very clear.

"How do you know?" Tom Ashbrook asked.

Because we have never been consulted on their agenda. We have sixteen-hundred companies. We have never been consulted by the US chamber. . . In my five years as the president of this chamber I have never received a call from the US chamber to solicit my opinion on their legislative agenda.

Wow.

Maybe this is why the US Chamber's claims to represent 3 million members are coming under greater scrutiny. Prompted by reporting by MoJo's Josh Harkinson regarding the US Chamber's real membership numbers, Alex Kaplun asks in E&E News

Just how big is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?

Many news organizations have often used that number when describing the chamber, and it has gone largely unchallenged.

But Mother Jones magazine, in an Oct. 13 article, placed the chamber's number as somewhere closer to 200,000, pointing out that was the number the chamber regularly used until 1997, when it started to cite the 3 million figure. The article argues that the 3 million number includes businesses that are members of local Chambers of Commerce and have no direct relationship to the national organization.

The article was quickly cited by the Huffington Post, the Natural Resources Defense Council and a number of other entities that have been critical of the chamber.

At a press conference the next day, chamber officials cited the group's membership as being 300,000 -- a number that Mother Jones and others quickly pounced on as an "acknowledgment" that the chamber's membership was far less than it claimed.

It also started something of an Internet war of words between Mother Jones and the chamber itself.

"Yes there are two numbers, direct membership and our federation members -- there have always been," Peck wrote.

In an e-mail to E&E this morning, Peck acknowledged, "This does often get reported in the press as 3 million members without the qualification. That is hardly our fault.

There are two problems with this. First, it certainly does appear to be the US Chamber's fault. Look at any Chamber press release. To a one, the last line of each says

The U.S. Chamber is the world's largest business federation representing more than 3 million businesses and organizations of every size, sector, and region.

If that's what the Chamber is telling the media every time it issues a public release, well, no wonder it gets reported that way. 

As James Surowiecki of The New Yorker said today

I think Harkinson has them dead to rights, and that the accurate number is around ten per cent of what the Chamber previously claimed (and I repeated). 

But, the Chamber's own words also appear to prove this point. David Chavern, the US Chamber's Chief Operating Officer, was on the OnPoint program today, and he asked Eastern Connecticut Chamber head Sheridan if his Chamber was a federation member. "Well we pay you $300 per year so if that makes us a member then I guess we are," Sheridan responded, which Chavern accepted as confirmation.

Which is important because in an FAQ document describing the federation program that Chavern was asking about, and through which the US Chamber derives its 3 million count, there appears the question:

Will local chamber members be locked in to political positions of the U.S. Chamber?

And the answer...

No. Your members will only receive advocacy messages that are agreed to by your chamber.

Uh-huh. So, has the US Chamber been basing that 3 million claim on how many of its affiliates agree with its climate position? Its hard to imagine so, since the Chamber uses the 3 million figure no matter what the issue. Which is more likely, that the Chamber has polled its affiliates on every issue to find the ones that agree with each position, and by some miracle each time the Chamber's position happens to be supported by affiliates whose combined  business membership equals 3 million?

Or that the US Chamber has been inflating its membership numbers?

US Chamber's Climate Credibilty Crisis Counter:

Quit US Chamber over climate:  Apple, Exelon, PNM Resources, PG&E, PSEG, Levi Strauss & Co, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Mohawk Paper.

Quit US Chamber Board over climate: Nike.

Companies that say the US Chamber doesn't represent their views on climate: Johnson&Johnson, General Electric, Alcoa, Duke, Entergy, Microsoft, Toyota(?), Royal Dutch Shell, Seventh Generation, small businesses in Minnesota, Colorado and Wisconsin.

Local Chambers distancing themselves from the US Chamber: San Jose Chamber of Commerce, Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce.

Editorials and columns noting that the US Chamber is damaging its reputation and credibility: BusinessWeek, PRWeek, Fortune Magazine's Marc Gunther, Newsweek, LA Times, Washington Post.   

Whodoesthechamberrepresent.org?

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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