The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has long prioritized corporate profits and executive compensation over the well-being of workers. The Chamber has lobbied and litigated on a variety of labor-related issues. In fact, a recent study of the Chamber’s litigation reveals that employment and labor relations is the second most frequently litigated issue by the group. The Chamber’s work in this domain falls into two main areas: fighting initiatives that would raise wages and opposing policies that would protect workers’ health and safety.
It has been nearly 80 years since the federal minimum wage was first established. During the intervening decades, the minimum wage has been increased 22 times. Often when legislators sought to bring the minimum wage in line with the rising cost of living, they faced a familiar opponent: The U.S. Chamber.
Throughout its history, the Chamber has opposed increasing the federal minimum wage, arguing that a raise would lead to higher inflation and unemployment and would specifically damage small businesses. The Chamber’s fears regarding the impact of a federal minimum wage increase on small businesses and their employees have been debunked. Still, the Chamber continues to attack proposals to provide low-income workers with a living wage. The Chamber’s enduring opposition to paying workers just compensation reveals the group’s clear prioritization of corporate and management interests at the expense of employees.
The Chamber’s opposition to increasing the minimum wage from its current low level is shortsighted, even from a business perspective. Iconic American businessman Henry Ford understood the importance of paying good wages. And more recently, even companies not known for their generosity are starting to realize that paying higher wages can improve the bottom line. By paying employees more, business owners understand that they can attract and retain more highly-motivated, productive employees. They also understand that in an economy where consumer spending accounts for almost 70 percent of economic output, paying employees a living wage allows them to consume more, thereby resulting in increased sales and stronger economic growth.
With the Trump administration taking its cues from the Chamber, the group has been able to even more aggressively pursue its anti-worker agenda. Much of its energy has been focused on blocking the implementation of the overtime rule, issued in 2016 by the Obama administration. The overtime rule substantially increased the salary threshold for overtime pay. Under the new rule, an additional 4.2 million people would be guaranteed time and a half pay for any additional hours they worked beyond 40 hours in a given week. The Chamber sued the Department of Labor (DOL) arguing that the agency did not have the authority to issue the rule. Once Trump took office, the Chamber lobbied DOL to abandon the increased salary threshold. The Trump administration has now indicated that it will not support the rule and as a result, the Chamber is likely to prevail in its efforts to prevent hard working Americans from earning more.
The Chamber’s war against overtime pay does not stop there. It currently supports the Working Families Flexibility Act, a bill which would enable employers to avoid providing overtime pay by offering comp time instead.
Companies often lobby against worker protections through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, thereby opposing popular safety measures without sullying their brand names. When they are successful, this enables the companies to skimp on expenditures to protect their workers, thereby potentially placing their employees in harm’s way.
The Chamber has consistently opposed efforts by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to make workplaces safer for workers. Many of these battles involve the finer details of regulatory rule-making, and are often hashed out far from the headlines. For example, the Chamber has opposed rules to limit workers’ exposure to silica, which is responsible for over 1,400 deaths from 2001-2010. Recently, the U.S. Chamber was instrumental in persuading Congress to use the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to repeal the Volks Rule, a regulation that required employers to maintain records of workplace injuries and illnesses for five years. The importance of thorough recordkeeping cannot be understated given that 3 million workers are injured and 4,800 are killed each year on the job. This comprehensive data would have enabled OSHA to better identify workplace risks and to design more effective safety regulations.
During Republican administrations, the Chamber – and its arguments – typically have much greater sway at regulatory agencies such as OSHA. One of President George W. Bush’s OSHA heads, Edwin Foulke, was a member of the Chamber’s Health and Safety Committee, during which time he testified before Congress promoting so-called voluntary compliance programs for companies – a far weaker alternative to OSHA enforcement and one often pushed by the Chamber. The Chamber also seized upon Bush’s election as an opportunity to use the CRA to void OSHA’s ergonomics rule, finalized at the end of the Clinton administration. The Chamber pushed to the overturn this thoroughly studied rule, which was designed to protect millions of workers from work-related musculoskeletal disorders.
With Trump in the White House and the GOP in control of Congress, expect the Chamber to ramp up its campaign against critical worker health and safety protections.