A defeat is a defeat, but the failure of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union to win a certification election at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse last month seems far more a confirmation of that giant corporation’s overweening power than a referendum on the willingness of its employees to organize for collective action.
In the aftermath of the National Labor Relations Board vote, even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says his company needs to “do a better job for our employees.” In a country where a recent Gallup poll shows union favorability at 65 percent, a 20-year high, the fact that only 10.3 percent of all workers are enrolled in a union demonstrates that something is gravely amiss.
Fixing America’s utterly dysfunctional labor laws would help, but that seems out of sight in a closely divided Congress. Though a working-class upheaval along the lines of Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter would be transformative, even the most skilled organizers struggle to achieve that at a single worksite, let alone across the entire country.
But unionists and liberals do have another weapon. Today we are in the midst of a radical recasting of antitrust law, sentiment, and administration. On one thing, both Trump partisans and their opponents can agree: Silicon Valley has too much power. It is not just that these companies are old-fashioned monopolies, like John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, capable of eliminating competition and jacking up the price of the services or goods they sell. Companies like Amazon and Apple—and Walmart too—are monopsonies, buyers who are so large and powerful that they have a vast influence over both the wages paid in an entire industry and the “vendors” from whom they purchase goods and services in their globe-spanning supply chains. And then there is the vast cultural and political influence they command. Their website portals edit contemporary and historical reality, not exactly the 21st century equivalent of Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth,” but close enough to send a chill down the spine.
Nearly half a century ago, Robert Bork and a generation of Chicago School economists captured the ideological and legal high ground when it came to the meaning of antitrust and the propagation of business regulations. In a merger, the only issue that the government need consider was: Would it lower prices for consumers? When companies merge, or just grow to gargantuan size, their very scale creates new efficiencies, thereby enabling them to pass lower operating costs on to consumers as lower prices.
The Reagan administration turned Bork’s theory into official Department of Justice policy, largely unaltered by subsequent Democratic presidencies. In 1985, there were about 2,300 corporate mergers in the United States. By 2017 there were more than 15,300. Silicon Valley firms have become notorious for buying fledging competitors to snuff out any real competition. And Wall Street takes notice. When Amazon purchased Whole Foods, its market cap rose by $15.6 billion—$2 billion more than it paid for the chain. Meanwhile, the rest of the grocery industry immediately lost $37 billion in market value.
Today, a new generation of antitrust advocates are reviving the radically democratic impulse that gave rise to trust-busting and government regulation during the Progressive and New Deal eras. Thirty-two-year-old Lina Khan, whom President Biden has just nominated to a seat on the Federal Trade Commission, could easily have taken a similar post in an Elizabeth Warren administration; likewise, Tim Wu, nominated for a seat on the National Economic Council, has been a fierce advocate of net neutrality, fighting Silicon Valley efforts to monopolize new communication technologies. Meanwhile, Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown and other Democrats are asking the Biden Justice Department why the feds have not challenged a major bank merger in 35 years.
In her celebrated Yale Law Review essay “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” Khan argued that “focusing antitrust exclusively on consumer welfare is a mistake.” Instead she offered a spirited critique of corporate power, wielded against both business rivals and workers alike, with Amazon as a prime example of a Big Business autocracy that the original antitrust impulse was designed to counter. When Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, its author, Senator John Sherman, declared, “If we will not endure a king as political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessities of life.” Forty-five years later President Franklin Roosevelt would echo Sherman when, in his speech accepting renomination at the 1936 Democratic National Convention, FDR denounced “economic royalists” who had “created a new despotism.” Decrying the pervasive influence of the corporations and banks, FDR saw concentrated industrial and financial power as a threat to democracy itself. “The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor—these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship.”
So how can labor partisans leverage the current antitrust revival to advance unionization at Amazon and other giant corporations? Just breaking up big companies, forcing Amazon to spin off Amazon Web Services for example, is not going to help unionization or improve working conditions. Even at half their current size, Amazon and the other corporate behemoths will still be powerful, multibillion-dollar corporations.
But the threat of antitrust action could prove just as potent as the actuality. If there is one thing that executives like Bezos, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi hate more than unionism, it is regulatory disruption of a successful business model. This is what happened back in the 1930s when congressional efforts to curb the growth of chain stores like A&P induced retail executives to cut a deal with the unions seeking to organize grocery workers. Likewise, at the start of World War II, it was not mere patriotism that persuaded many corporations to make peace with the unions and facilitate their further growth. Companies like Ford and Montgomery Ward feared that if they continued their hard line against the unions, even more government regulation, or an actual takeover, might be in the offing. And in the early postwar era, liberals and unionists favored aggressive enforcement of the antitrust laws in order to curb corporate power. For example, General Motors, always fearful of antitrust action, maintained a price umbrella high enough to allow Ford and Chrysler to flourish, thereby enabling the United Automobile Workers to negotiate wage increases of a high and uniform standard.
Like the great automobile, shipbuilding, and aviation companies in World War II, Amazon’s sensational growth during the Covid shutdown is a product of a government-led recasting of the entire economy. Just as the auto industry converted to production of planes, tanks, and artillery, so too has the pandemic channeled retail dollars toward Amazon, in the process swelling the company workforce by nearly half a million employees.
And this brings us to another element of the new anti-trust impulse. In the Progressive era, the courts ruled that a wide variety of corporations and industries “affected with a public interest” might be subject to the kind of governmental regulation—covering prices, products, and even labor standards—that in recent decades have been restricted largely to electrical utilities and transport companies. Facebook, Google, and Amazon have effectively become utilities, essential to commerce and civic life, and should therefore be subject to the same kind of regulation imposed in the railroad, telephone, and electrical industries more than a century ago. During World War I, the government seized a dysfunctional railroad network that had failed to deliver vital war supplies, in the process facilitating unionism and better working conditions for more than a million workers.
On its own even a progressive antitrust regime cannot create a new union movement. Energy and activism among millions of ordinary workers is essential. But an aggressive Biden administration effort to curtain corporate power would open a new front in the campaign to democratize the world of work—and ensure workers a fair share of the wealth they create. It might even convince America’s new captains of industry that their decades-long war on their own employees only furnishes more ammunition to those seeking a radical deconstruction of their digital empires.