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Chamber Defections Cast Shadow Over Latest Effort

Correction Appended

As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rolled out its multimillion-dollar Campaign for Free Enterprise on Wednesday with all the pomp and circumstance of a political campaign rally, the business group was still dogged by questions surrounding its position on climate change legislation.

Chamber President Tom Donohue defended his group’s position and said companies are being pressured by environmental activists to withdraw from the chamber. The chamber has seen four companies quit over the past couple of months and one company, Nike Inc., stepped down from its board over disagreements about how climate change legislation should move forward.

“It’s clear that some environment groups are coordinating some of their effort” in order to get chamber members to quit, Donohue said. “I’m sort of proud by some of the reaction. ... [It shows] we’re having some effect.”

Donohue linked climate change policy with the jobs effort that he unveiled Wednesday. The Campaign for Free Enterprise, which aims to add 20 million jobs over the next decade, will help give Congress the political will and resources to move forward on meaningful climate change, he said.

The chamber has been advocating for a comprehensive approach to climate change that would require countries such as China and India to not be exempt from carbon limits.

Tom Bell, vice president of the chamber’s board, said that given the group’s size, there is rarely consensus about positions that the chamber takes on legislation. He pointed to the chamber’s endorsement of the stimulus bill earlier this year as one that it “got a lot of heat” about.

At the same time, 43 activist shareholders and investment groups sent letters to 14 companies Wednesday pushing them to step up the pressure on the chamber and the National Association of Manufacturers because the groups are at odds with the companies’ own position on climate change. If the companies cannot get the chamber to change its position, the letters urge the companies to either pull out of the chamber or ask for a portion of their membership dues back.

The letters come after Exelon Corp., PG&E Corp., PNM Resources Inc. and Apple Inc. resigned from the chamber.

The unrest over climate change has occurred as businesses have paired with environmental groups to form coalitions such as the U.S. Climate Action Partnership and Businesses for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy.

With the stated intention of adding 20 million jobs over the next decade, the chamber’s effort is based on trying to tap into the free enterprise spirit that it believes is the backbone of American entrepreneurship and business.

The chamber also rolled out the initial phase of a multimillion-dollar national advertising campaign targeting thought leaders in New York and Washington, D.C.

The campaign is slated to run through at least the end of President Barack Obama’s first term. Donohue said the chamber would be working with state and local chambers and the government to try to create jobs.

While Donohue said the campaign is not targeting any particular party, he did reiterate several times the need to limit taxes, reduce burdensome regulations and increase free trade.

Already unions are taking issue with the chamber’s jobs push. While Donohue said the chamber would be willing to work with unions to try to create more jobs, groups like the Service Employees International Union are fighting back, saying the chamber, and Donohue in particular, has done everything in its power to implement policies that have caused Americans to lose jobs.

SEIU’s Anna Burger said the chamber is advocating a policy that is not good for workers or the members of the chamber, including spending $2 million against consumer protection policy and $10 million against the Employee Free Choice Act.

“They have demonstrated time after time under Tom Donohue that they don’t think workers should have a voice,” Burger said.

Correction: Oct. 15, 2009

The article incorrectly stated that Duke Energy Corp. had left the Chamber of Commerce.

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