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What Next for Amazon Workers?

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.

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