The revolt against the U.S. Chamber’s stunning betrayal of Main Street America


It’s an idea that boggles the mind: America’s largest, most powerful and best-known business organization siding AGAINST tens of thousands of its own members — small- and mid-sized business owners in the U.S. heartland whose very survival is on the line. The only thing that could make that scenario involving the U.S. Chamber of Commerce even more staggering would be if the Chamber were doing this to aid a company that’s not even based in the United States.

But that is exactly what is happening here in the Gulf Coast, where the U.S. Chamber, a lobbying Goliath, has sided with the London-based, pollution-spewing multinational corporation British Petroleum. BP is deperately pushing to reneg on its $8.7 billion-plus settlement with coastal businesses from Louisiana to Florida who were battered by the fallout from BP’s reckless, 5-million barrel 2010 oil spill. Now, the Chamber’s determination to side with international Big Oil against salt-of-the-earth American business owners is sparking an unprecedented revolt by the rank and file.

Gulf Coast chambers of commerce told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that their mothership, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, does not represent them in its support of BP PLC’s challenge to the class action settlement stemming from the 2010Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In an unusual public display of disagreement with the national chamber, the local affiliates, said:

“The Chamber did not seek the input nor approval of the amici affiliates, nor to our knowledge any Gulf Coast area affiliate, prior to filing its amicus brief in support of petitioner’s petition for a writ of certiorari.”

In 2012, you’ll recall, BP’s own lawyers negotiated the settlement — estimated then to be worth $8.7 billion — with thousands of business owners and Gulf residents who were affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill. These plaintiffs were folks who ran motels, seafood restaurants or car rental agencies who watched tourism plummet after the spill in the spring of 2010, or thousands of others who got caught in the wider economic fallout.

While some lawyers (myself included) argued two years ago in open court that the terms still did not fully address all the harm that was done to the livelihood and the health of so many Americans, those lawyers for the oil giant vigorously, and successfully, defended the deal. But when it came time to pay up, BP suddenly claimed that it was shocked, shocked by how many business owners had submitted proof their business had suffered in the aftermath of the oil spill. Now, the oil giant has hired a new set of lawyers and trudged back into court, pleading with judges to toss the old settlement so it can negotiate far less generous terms. BP’s efforts have — thankfully — been stymied so far, but the corporation presses on, seeking an outcome that would re-devastate the Gulf economy by sapping our rebuilding efforts of billions of dollars.

That’s where the U.S. Chamber comes in. It’s funny — the term “Chamber of Commerce” still manages to evoke images of Main Street America, of weekly rubber-chicken luncheons and quaint stickers on the front window of the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. The reality is just the opposite. The Washington-based U.S. Chamber is a creature of our 21st Century system in which all power and influence flows to a tiny handful of massive multinational corporations, and Main Street business owners are just another form of roadkill.

As noted by the Law Journal:

Citing research by Public Citizen, the group told the high court that “only 1,500 entities (significantly less than 3 million) provided 94 percent of [the Chamber’s] contributions in 2012. More than half of its contributions came from just 64 donors. So the bulk of the Chamber’s funding appears to come from large, well-funded corporate concerns, not the ‘mom-and-pop shops’ the Chamber claims and certainly not these amici affiliates.”

The U.S. Chamber spokesman said: “Some members of the plaintiffs’ bar have seized on the settlement agreement as an opportunity to seek a windfall for persons who cannot show any injury caused by the spill. The Chamber’s brief explains that this type of opportunism is inconsistent with the agreement’s provisions and the settling parties’ expectations.”

However, the local chambers argue in their brief that—contrary to the national chamber’s brief—BP designed the compensation system; lobbied for district court approval; attested to its adequacy and fairness under oath; and initially defended it before the Fifth Circuit.

By reinforcing BP’s version of the facts, the local group said, the national chamber “serves the express interests of a foreign corporation at the expense of a very large number of its affiliates and individual business members.”

The local chambers that are taking on the national headquarters represent some 7,000 businesses with about 200,000 employees, stretching from New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana all the way to Tampa and Fort Myers on Florida’s southern coast. They have learned a lesson in 21st Century American power politics — that Wall Street, as represented by the U.S. Chamber, is waging war on Main Street.

That is why it is thrilling to see Main Street finally understanding the big picture — and fighting back. I have great confidence that the Supreme Court — despite its pro-business leanings — will see through the charade that BP, the U.S. Chamber and its powerful allies are attempting on behalf of the broader interests of large corporations. But I’m even more reassured by the great awakening that is taking place across the Gulf region, from business owners to fishing-crew members to beachfront retirees — that Big Oil does not share their values. That is a lesson that will have implications far beyond BP’s underhanded efforts to add a few billion dollars more to its already bloated bottom line.

To read more from the National Law Journal about local chambers’ revolt against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, check out:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • Thanks for your post on the U.S. CoC. As a professional artist, I’ve encountered the chamber’s monkey business with IP and copyright, and I have no doubt you’re familiar with someone who’s been on my radar- former Sen. Don Nickles, who’s busy making a mess in both the IP and fossil fuel/energy arenas. A front group he supports, the Copyright Alliance, is a frequent co-conspirator with the CoC’s Global Intellectual Property Center in trying to sell policy poison to main st., to benefit the top players backing the CoC. What a bunch, and quite a web of influence they have.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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