This is part of an occasional series on the new threat of monopoly power to the American economy and political system. Read part 1 on efforts to curb monopoly power in the 19th century. Part 2 on how the successful effort to curb monopoly power helped build the middle class. Part 3 about the Reagan-era intellectual framework that dismantled anti-monopoly policy.
Last week’s election was a success for the candidates challenge corporate powerincluding Attorney General Keith Ellison and a a bit of legislation hopefuls who helped the DFL gain control of the state government. Now, these candidates will have a unique opportunity in the next legislative session to pass the reforms needed to protect Minnesotans from corporate monopolies.
If you haven’t noticed yet, our economy has become remarkably concentrated, with a handful of giant corporations dominating technology, detail, Health careand agriculture, just to name a few. Since 2005, the entire American economy has become 50% more concentratedresulting in a series of negative consequences for communities.
In Minnesota, warehouse workers are put in danger by Amazon; agro-industrial monopolies have helped in bankruptcy dairy producers; Minnesota lost the highest share independent pharmacies; rural residents live in the nation most concentrated hospital market; and the number of small businesses was shrinking long before COVID-19.
President Biden has helped invigorate our country’s dormant antitrust laws by appointing aggressive enforcers to the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department’s antitrust division, but attorneys general like Ellison are also key enforcers. Ellison has prioritized antitrust enforcement, but he is challenging the monopolies — and their army of expensive lawyers — in the face of outdated laws and a lack of resources.
While Ellison has sought to strengthen antitrust enforcement, its antitrust division has only 2.5 full-time employees, which it has tried to remedy with modest funding requests double the size of this team. With a $9 billion surplus and unified control of state government, the legislature has no excuse not to fund the personnel needed to protect Minnesotans from corporate domination. However, more staff is just the start. New legal tools are also needed to protect fair and open markets.
For the past four decades antitrust authorities and courts have narrowed the reach of antitrust law, weakening its ability to protect workers and small businesses from abusive and anti-competitive behavior. A bundle of bills presented last session by Representatives Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, and Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, and Senator Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, would help reverse this trend. The bills would modernize Minnesota’s antitrust laws and penalties, enact new prohibitions on dominant firms seeking to eliminate competitors or prevent new ones, and strengthen protections against anticompetitive price discrimination that allow large firms to benefit from preferential agreements not available to small businesses.
State antitrust laws are a powerful tool. Just weeks ago, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson used his state’s antitrust law stop, pause a key part of the proposed merger between Kroger and Albertsons. The merger would create a grocery giant that would further consolidate power over our food system and likely mean even higher costs for consumers already squeezed by skyrocketing grocery prices.
Antitrust is only part of antimonopoly, though, and rising grocery prices point to another problem. exacerbated by corporate concentration: inflation. As monopolistic corporations make record profits, they charge families record prices. Ellison took action against this kind of price hike in 2021 when he sued Sparboe Farmsbut that was within the authority granted to him by Gov. Tim Walz under his pandemic emergency powers.
Today, monopolists can again legally defraud consumers, which the legislator can remedy by adopting price gouging bans similar to those approved by the House last year.
The House also took aim at Big Tech, passing a bill drafted by Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL – Minneapolis, that create more protections for Amazon warehouse workers.
Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, legislation introduced propose alternatives for developers and small businesses under the thumb of the Google and Apple App Store duopoly.
Dominant companies also relax their power over workers through restrictive employment contracts such as non-compete clauses and non-poaching agreements. The omnibus jobs bill written by Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, the latest session would end these practices.
Corporate monopolies restrict not only workers, but also consumers. Giants like Apple and John Deere use licenses and restrictions on repair instructions and diagnostic tools to limit the ability to repair products like laptops and tractors. For the past several years, Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, has championed legislation it would grant Minnesotans the right to fix the things they own.
(See all the names with “DFL” next to them? Republicans, who frequently take aim at big tech and say they represent small businesses and autonomous communities, should join Democrats as they tackle to entrenched corporate power that hurts everyone from small retailers to farmers.)
Lawmakers can do much more to improve Minnesota’s antitrust laws, strengthen worker protections, and protect fair markets from the concentration of corporate power.
The recent legislative initiatives detailed here show that the ground is ready for action. With nearly three quarters voters dissatisfied with the size and influence of big business, legislators would do well to seize this historic moment.