Point of View

NC Chamber needs to ask: Are we going too far?

February 7, 2013 

The five voluntary officers of the N.C. Chamber would never turn to their own employees and say, “I’ve decided it’s a good idea that we cut your benefits in half to pay for our past mistakes and let the future unemployed of this company suffer a bit more to facilitate our profit.”

But that is what they are doing by allowing chamber staff to use their leaders’ work and credibility to play a dominant role in creating and passing an Unemployment Insurance reform bill that hurts every employee in North Carolina including each of their own.

The bill would cut the maximum benefits paid to unemployed workers and reduce the maximum weeks of benefits so that the state can repay the federal government more quickly for money borrowed to pay the unemployed. But the state had to borrow the money in the first place because the chamber advocated several years ago that unemployment taxes be cut, draining the trust fund.

It’s a classic case of the group doing what no member would stand for personally. From frat houses to corporate collapses, there is trouble when folks submerge their personal values due to some imagined duty to a team, shareholders or members who they assume have lesser values or intentions than their own. Even independent, respected business leaders can be swept along on the tide of wanting peer approval to a place they would never go personally.

Frank Holding Jr. of First Citizens Bank, Brad Wilson of Blue Cross Blue Shield NC, Jack Bailey of GlaxoSmithKline, Jim Whitehurst of Red Hat and Anne Lloyd of Martin Marietta Materials are the officers of the N.C. Chamber. They have outside responsibilities and an awareness of the needs and reality of a broader public that is right now vulnerable to all of the political advantage they enjoy. They must vet, evaluate and sniff every proposal for fairness and decency.

When good people fail to stand up even while behind closed chamber doors, the cost to others can be great.

It’s all happened before.

In the 1990s, the same chamber (then called NCCBI) pushed and took credit for a whopping series of Unemployment Insurance premium reductions that in large measure got us into this UI debt mess. During this period, the chamber declared in a promotional brochure that investing in NCCBI was solid as its efforts resulted in “$4,488 of UI premium savings” per year for a mid-sized employer.

Surely current leaders individually understand that their predecessors crafted or at least took credit for what got us into this mess. Now the mantra is “this is what the legislature did a few years ago, we are all in this together now,” deftly avoiding the credit or responsibility for what was earlier boasted.

Apparently no one back then asked, “Are we dooming later business to giant debt by draining the trust fund?” If but one thoughtful business voice had stepped back and said it is important to understand what it is we are taking and from whom, the debt they are trying to offload onto their present and future unemployed might have been avoided.

They are deciding how the folks who work for them at companies like Red Hat, First Citizens and GSK will be treated when they have to be laid off through no fault of their own. They know from experience what hardship that is and how each person dismissed would be there again early the next morning if he had a choice. Why are other employees different?

Because the first 24 hours of this bill’s life showed that legislative leaders are bent on avoiding the facts and competing with one another to see who can please chamber leaders most quickly, the leaders are, by default, the only potential voice of moderation.

Who among them will now ask, “Are we going too far?”

Kevin J. Rogers is the Policy and Public Affairs director at ActionNC, a grassroots community organization based in Raleigh.

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