A while back, I proposed that Vermont’s small retailers ought to open their own interest group. I suggested the Vermont Association of Independent Retailers, or VAIR for short.
The idea came to me while reading about their putative Montpelier representation, the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, helmed by the very effective Jim Harrison. One of his favorite techniques is to bring some mom-and-pop types to the Statehouse whenever there’s legislation that might touch on retail interests, such as the proposed sugary-beverage tax.
Truth is, Harrison gives a lot of lip service to the little guy, but his real clients are in Big Retail — the WalMarts, Hannafords, and Dollar Generals of the world. And quite often, the interests of Big Retail are at odds with what’s best for small business. Guys like Harrison draw a stark divide between the private sector and government; in fact, the real divide is frequently found between big retail and small. I would ask this of real independent retailers: which is the biggest threat to your existience? A change in state regulations, or the big boxes and dollar stores springing up all over the place?
This is also true in the broader business world. And in that field, there’s a thousand-pound lobbying gorilla called the National Federation of Independent Businesses, or NFIB. Which has a Vermont branch, helmed by veteran corporate lobbyist Shawn Shouldice. (Who also, I can’t help but note, does PR for Bruce Lisman.)
The NFIB sounds like a joint effort of all the mom-and-pops. It bills itself as “the voice of small business.”
Well, it’s not.
NFIB is, in fact, part of the vast right-wing network of nonprofits, institutes, PACs, SuperPACs, and lobbying shops that get huge gobs of money from right-wing tycoons. Notable NFIB benefactors include, you guessed it, the Koch brothers, as well as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. As SourceWatch puts it:
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is a powerhouse lobbying group (reporting $103 million in revenue in 2012) that purports to represent small businesses, emphasizing the claim that they are “NOT a voice for big business”. However, the group has been shown to lobby on issues that favor large corporate interests and run counter to the interests of small businesses.
NFIB has fought tooth and nail against health care reform, and has battled against paid sick leave legislation wherever it’s been proposed.
Sound familiar? Health care reform and paid sick leave were two battleground issues in this year’s Vermont Legislature. And there was NFIB-Vermont, lobbying like hell and messaging its members on the evils of government mandates.
Small business owners get a lot of their information from groups like NFIB and the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association. Much of the time, they’re getting a very slanted picture — one that pits all business against Big Bad Government. As a result, they end up carrying water for their deep-pocketed corporate competition, the very people they ought to be most worried about.
People like Harrison and Shouldice hammer the theme that government diktats are killing small business. But in fact, it’s big corporations that most fear mandates like minimum wage increases and paid sick leave. They want to nip progressive leglislation in the bud, because if it spreads widely, their cumulative costs will go up. Which will make it a little harder for them to undercut small businesses.
In Vermont’s debate on paid sick leave, advocates have repeatedly offered compromises to address the objections of NFIB and like-minded groups. Still, those groups continue to fight hard against the legislation because they are less interested in the particulars of Vermont than in preventing the issue from gaining a foothold and spreading elsewhere.
Most small business owners, unlike corporate giants, have personal relationships with their staff and try to do right by them. It would behoove small business to make it harder, not easier, for big business to stomp them into the dust. Heck, they might even begin to see that government can actually be their friend.