Lock 'N' Load At The Chamber Of Commerce

Labor Day, 1997. First day on the job for Thomas J. Donohue, new president of the staid U.S. Chamber of Commerce. So how will Donohue mark the occasion? Playing party crasher with a frontal assault on unions. "Only 10% of the private-sector workforce is unionized," he says. "We'll celebrate the millions of entrepreneurs who make this country one of the finest places to work."

Welcome to the new Chamber of Commerce. If the new chief's timing seems provocative, it is. The smoothly aggressive Donohue, formerly the top lobbyist for the American Trucking Assns., is a man on a mission: reorganize the nation's largest business group into a lobbying powerhouse, just as the UPS settlement has reenergized labor. Says Joan Claybrook of the consumer group Public Citizen, who tangled with Donohue over truck safety: "His whole attitude with anyone who opposes him is `let's crush 'em."'

But Donohue, silver-haired and charming, has his fans. Longtime pal J. Willard Marriott Jr., CEO of Marriott International Inc., praises the veteran Washington lobbyist as a "very can-do person." That may be just what the Chamber needs. In recent years, its membership has hovered at 200,000 businesses, while its budget has stagnated at $70 million. Increasingly, small businesses complain that the Chamber hasn't taken a tough enough line against Clinton-style regulation. Says one corporate lobbyist: "It's like a sleeping giant."

"RAW NERVES." Under Donohue, the giant will be up--and snarling at organized labor. In addition to meeting with Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, Donohue plans to lunch with AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney in his first week. But even a tete-a-tete isn't likely to ease the friction between these two Beltway tough guys. "Obviously, we're hitting raw nerves with him," says Sweeney.

Business lobbyists still fume over labor's $35 million campaign to defeat anti-union lawmakers in 1996. And labor's UPS victory has some businesses itching to knock the unions down a few pegs. "You may find us right up in each other's faces," says Donohue. To prepare for battle, Donohue plans to boost membership, then add dozens of lobbyists. Their top priority will be bills capping product-liability and class-action awards.

Another target: environmental regulations. The Chamber will join forces with other business groups to lobby against costly limits on "greenhouse gas" and soot pollution. An ardent backer of immigration policies that encourage skilled foreign workers to enter the U.S. workforce, Donohue also will press Washington for additional aid to retrain workers. And there will be a new push for more federal resources to battle crime and drugs. "Another invisible tax on our companies," Donohue says.

WRONG BATTLE? Clearly, Donohue is out to make a splash: He plans to visit 40 cities in the next year, zipping from state to state in a leased corporate jet. His predecessor, genteel supply-sider Richard L. Lesher, "was bad but kept his lips shut," says consumer activist Ralph Nader. "Donohue is worse because he bares his fangs."

Donohue's blustery style may grab headlines initially. However, it also could reignite the warfare between business and labor that raged in the 1970s. And that might not win Donohue a lot of points. On the whole, business has counseled cooperation, not confrontation, between the GOP Congress and Clinton. Besides, labor is in favor again: Polls show strong public support for giving workers their piece of an expanding economic pie. In the end, Tom Donohue may discover that he can better advance his agenda if he's not always showing his teeth.

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