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Progressive Small Business Groups Often Go Unheard

Progressive Small Business Groups Often Go Unheard

Small business groups are frequently assumed to have a conservative, anti-tax, anti-regulation political agenda. And in the case of most of the small business groups you see in the media, this is often true.

However, there are many national small business groups throughout the country that have a much more progressive, even liberal, ethos. Their goals are aligned along a set of principles that assert that acting in a responsible manner with the collective good of society in mind is, ultimately, good for their own bottom lines.

Often dismissed as liberals who don't have an interest in capitalism, members of these businesses groups — which include hundreds of thousands of small business owners around the country — say their political agenda is actually very much pro-business.

"[We] support policies that expand economic opportunity, reduce inequality, promote innovation, entrepreneurship and sustainability and rebuild our nation’s infrastructure for long-term success," said Bob Keener, business outreach and media manager, for Business for a Shared Prosperity, a Massachusetts-based business organization that supports causes such as a fair minimum wage and financial reform and regulation.

Most of the organization's members are small business owners with strong roots in their local communities, Keener said. 

"Our members come from every state and include retail, the restaurant industry, manufacturing, health care, agriculture, construction, real estate, business consulting, auto repair, clean tech, information technology, hospitality, design, craft makers, accounting, finance, marketing, research and much more," Keener said.

Keener said that organizations like his represent the diversity of voices among small business owners.

"There is far more diversity of views in the business community than is regularly represented in Washington or the media," he said. "Our members are outraged that Wall Street and large multinational corporations use small business as poster children to push policies that line their pockets while hurting small businesses and Main Street."

The organization has focused on supporting financial reform, credit, taxes and public investment in infrastructure.

'Not bleeding hearts'

Many business members of these organizations feel that their roles as business owners do not preclude them from having a vested interest in the welfare and well-being of the communities around them.

"It's not all about taxes and deregulation. There's a broader range of issues that affect small business," said Kelly Conklin, co-owner of Foley-Waite Associates, a custom woodworking company based in Bloomfield, N.J. Conklin is a member of the executive committee of another progressive small business group called the Main Street Alliance, which says that it has more than 10,000 business members.

"This is not bleeding heart liberalism. It's a hardcore practical reality that we have to live with and we have to promote," Conklin said. "We need a capable, willing, dependent work force that is willing to show up for work."

Conklin believes the only way to cultivate that work force is for businesses to support their employees and communities by providing a fair salary and benefits to employees and paying a fair tax to invest in the infrastructure of the community he operates in.

"Most small business people are practical and reasonable enough to understand we have to pay taxes to have roads we can drive on, roads to deliver our goods on," Conklin said. He points out that this does not mean he always like the way his tax dollars are being spent. "I'm no fan of wasting money. I'm not giggly over paying taxes. What I want to see is the efficient delivery of government."

For Conklin, and many other members of the Main Street Alliance, that means seeing health care reform play out in a way that reduces small business health care costs, allowing them to provide health insurance to their employees.

"I am hopeful that health insurance reform makes health insurance broadly available," he said. One way small business can help make that happen is by lobbying their state governments to set up the planned health care exchanges properly, so that the rates will go down.

Pro health care reform

Another small business group which has frequently spoken out in favor of health care reform is the Sausalito, Calif.-based Small Business Majority.

The organization is particularly involved in supporting health care reform, clean energy development and job creation.

One of the group's recent projects was commissioning research by an Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor that found that health insurance reform would benefit small business if rolled out properly.

Unlike traditionally conservative small business groups, which have been encouraging their members to lobby their representatives to repeal health care reform, the Small Business Majority touts research as a reason for small business to support healthcare reform.

"Many components of comprehensive health care reform are aimed at helping these employers and their workers obtain high-quality, affordable coverage," the organization said on its website.

Big vs. small business

"It is clear that what is good for big business is not always good for small business," said Frank Knapp, Jr., president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce (which is a separate organization from the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce).

"Over the years, we have opposed big business on numerous issues for exactly this reason," said Knapp, who is also the vice chairman of board of the American Sustainable Business Council.

Knapp believes that serving the real interests of small business means separating their needs from those of larger businesses.

"The media and public are rather easily fooled by groups and politicians that claim their positions are for the good of small business," he said. "Look behind the curtain of these claims and you’ll often find big business benefiting, not small business. Political clout is not the same thing as truly representing the interests of small business."

Jeanette Mulvey
Jeanette Mulvey

Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @jeanettebnd.