A newly leaked video offers a rare glimpse into how pro-business groups strategize to fight against a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave, and other workplace protections.
It shows David Merrit, managing director of renowned pollster Frank Luntz's firm LuntzGlobal, giving a private webinar to the pro-business Council of State Chambers of Commerce, an umbrella organization for state-level business leaders.
Public support for a higher minimum wage is spiking. Spurred by the Fight for 15 protest movement, New York and California just announced plans to raise their rates to 15 an hour. But Merrit suggests that business leaders can keep wages low by "not talking about" the issue and instead focusing the political conversation on "creating more jobs."
The leak was accompanied by internal polling data that shows the vast majority of state-level business executives actually approve of a hike in the minimum wage, as well as a raft of pro-labor measures, including paid sick and maternity leave. The data and video were made public by the Center for Media and Democracy.
Lisa Graves, the center's director, called the revelations "outrageous" and said they proved that the council is pushing against policies that its membership actually supports.
A full 80 percent of the 1,000 executives polled in the survey support an increase in the minimum wage, according to the leaked documents. Around 72 percent approve of more paid maternity leave, 73 percent would increase paid sick time, and 78 percent want to end "on-call" shifts — a scheduling practice that demands workers show up to work with little to no notice.
The leaked video gives no indication that the poll numbers motivate the council to change its views on labor issues. Instead, Merrit, the pollster, can be heard explaining that defeating any minimum wage campaign will be tough, given that they attract widespread popular support — even among many business leaders.
"It's undeniable that they support the increase," the pollster said. "And this is universal. If you're fighting against a minimum wage increase, you're fighting an uphill battle, because most Americans, even most Republicans, are okay with raising the minimum wage."
The reason for such high public support for minimum wage and sick leave policies, he suggests, is a high level of "empathy" for the plight of working people.
At that point in the presentation, Merrit turns to a slide where the world "empathy" appears in capitalized rainbow-colored letters.
Merrit then goes on to give some tips on how to "combat" that empathy. "The best way" to defeat an increase in the minimum wage, he says, "is to not talk about the minimum wage" and instead change the subject.
"Where you might find some comfort if you are opposing it in your state is, how big of a priority is it against other priorities?" he advised. "Most folks think there are bigger priorities. Creating more jobs rather than raising the minimum wage is a priority that most everyone agrees with. So when you put it up against other issues, you can find other alternatives and other things to focus on."
Even though the polling suggests local business leaders members are sympathetic to a wage hike, chambers of commerce across the country have been the chief opponents of minimum wage increases, said Paul Sonn general counsel for the National Employment Law Project (NELP). He pointed to the recent battle in New York State over raising the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour. The Business Council of New York fought the wage hike — and it's head, Heather Briccetti, is one of the directors of the Council of State Chambers, the group that hired Luntz to conduct the survey.
"This is a non-story," said Zack Hutchins, director of communications for the Business Council of New York State. "While the Luntz survey failed to reference a specific dollar amount for the increase, or list the details of the respondents, a separate survey of New York business leaders, conducted by the highly-respected Siena Research Institute, found nearly 90 percent opposition to a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The Siena survey represented the true voice of New York businesses, something the Luntz survey did not."
In Alabama, the State Chamber of Commerce is currently leading the charge to roll back a minimum wage increase in Birmingham, the first city in the south to raise its own minimum wage. Sonn said that such efforts are behind the times.
"Luntz polling highlights what's been obvious for a long time: these lobbying groups don't speak for everyday business people," he remarked.
Alyssa Katz, the author of The Influence Machine: The US Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Capture of American Life, said the apparent gap between the chambers' lobbying priorities and the positions of local business leaders is not surprising. Her book examines the advocacy efforts of the US Chamber of Commerce, which is affiliated with (but not directly in control of) the Council of State Chambers. The links between two organizations, however, are quite strong: the US Chamber of Commerce's National Political Director Rob Engstrom serves as one of the State Council's directors.
Katz said that historically, the US Chamber of Commerce's lobbying activities are dictated not by the views of local business leaders, but by the "big business players" on the national scene. So when companies like McDonald's or KFC want to defeat a higher wage, the chamber helps them lobby.
"When it comes to big national labor issues like minimum wage, of course the chamber sides with the management ," she said. "That's who they represent."
The US Chamber of Commerce routinely tops the list of organizations spending the most on lobbying, and it has long opposed any hike in the federal minimum wage above the current rate of $7.25 an hour. In Arizona, Alabama, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, and Wisconsin, chambers of commerce have fought raising the minimum wage on both the state or local level. And they have fought against expanding sick leave in California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, and New Mexico.
Graves, with the Center for Media and Democracy, argues that the leaked video offers an unprecedented peak into how the Council of State Chambers gets state-level leaders on board with that national lobbying program. "They are getting state level folks on message, behind the scenes," she explained.
But Joe Crosby, the executive director of the Council of State Chambers of Commerce — the organization that hired Luntz's firm — said the leaked video is being blown out of proportion. He admitted that the group opposes laws to improve labor conditions on the state level, but suggested the council's critics are missing key context. He noted that the 1,000 executives polled in the survey aren't necessarily reflective of chamber of commerce members' views overall — the chambers oppose minimum wage hikes and paid leave because that's what businesses want.
"State chambers are membership organizations," he said. "They make decisions in concert with their members. If they didn't do that they'd leave, or replace the leadership."
While many chamber members may be empathic to the plight of workers making low wages without sick leave, Crosby said, overall they oppose government intervention in the economy.
"State chambers don't believe that government mandates are the best way to do things," he said. "When polled 93 percent of our members oppose mandates." In his view, the poll numbers just reflect business leaders' conviction that wages and benefits should improve in the long term.
But Graves hopes the leaks will drive a wedge between the chamber and its members, and lend momentum to the minimum wage movement
"These lobbyists are pushing the interests of a very narrow set of people," she said. "They should get out of the way."
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro