Minnesota can play a big role in challenging corporate power

Legislators and Attorney General Keith Ellison should protect workers, consumers and communities from monopolists

November 21, 2022 6:00 am

The quadriga horses at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster.

This is part of an occasional series on the new threat of monopoly power on America’s 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 on the Reagan-era intellectual framework that dismantled antimonopoly policy. 

Last week’s election was a successful one for candidates challenging corporate power, including Attorney General Keith Ellison and a smattering of legislative hopefuls that helped the DFL take control of state government. Now those candidates will have a unique opportunity this coming legislative session to pass reforms necessary to protect Minnesotans from corporate monopolies. 

If you have not yet noticed, our economy has become remarkably concentrated, with a handful of giant firms dominating tech, retail, health care, and agriculture, just to name a few. Since 2005 the entire American economy has become 50% more concentrated, leading to a range of negative consequences for communities. 

In Minnesota, warehouse workers are put in danger by Amazon; agribusiness monopolists have helped bankrupt dairy farmers; Minnesota has lost the highest share of independent pharmacies; rural residents live in the nation’s most concentrated hospital market; and the number of small businesses was shrinking long before COVID-19.

President Biden has helped reinvigorate our nation’s dormant antitrust laws by appointing aggressive enforcers to the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, but attorneys general like Ellison are also key enforcers. Ellison has prioritized antitrust enforcement, but he is challenging monopolists — and their army of high-priced attorneys — in the face of outdated laws and a lack of resources.

While Ellison has sought to increase antitrust enforcement, his antitrust division only totals 2.5 full-time employees, something he has tried to remedy with modest funding requests to double the size of that team. With a $9 billion surplus and unified control of state government, the Legislature has no excuse for not funding the staff needed to protect Minnesotans from corporate domination. More staff is just the start, however. New legal tools are also needed to protect fair and open markets.

For the past four decades both antitrust enforcers and the courts have narrowed the scope of antitrust law, weakening its ability to protect workers and small businesses from abusive and anti-competitive conduct. A package of bills introduced last session by Reps. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, and Steve Elkins, DFL-Bloomington, and Sen. Lindsey Port, DFL-Burnsville, would help reverse that trend. The bills would modernize Minnesota’s antitrust laws and penalties, adopt new prohibitions on dominant firms seeking to push out competitors or prevent news ones, and strengthen protections against anticompetitive price discrimination that allow big firms to receive preferential deals not available to smaller companies.

State antitrust laws are a powerful tool. Just several weeks ago Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson used his state’s antitrust law to 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 just one part of antimonopoly though, and rising grocery costs point to another issue exacerbated by corporate concentration: inflation. While corporate monopolies experience record profits, they are charging families record prices. Ellison took action against this kind of price-gouging in 2021 when he sued Sparboe Farms, but that was under authority granted to him by Gov. Tim Walz under his pandemic emergency powers. 

Today, monopolists can once again legally rip off consumers, which the Legislature can remedy by passing price-gouging prohibitions similar to those approved by the House last year.

The House also took aim at Big Tech, passing a bill authored by Rep. Emma Greenman, DFL – Minneapolis, which would create more protections for workers in Amazon warehouses. 

Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Wolgamott, DFL-St. Cloud, introduced legislation providing alternatives for developers and small businesses under the thumb of Google and Apple’s app store duopoly.

Dominant corporations are also flexing their power over workers through restrictive employment contracts like non-compete clauses and no-poach agreements. The omnibus jobs bill authored by Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, last session would end those practices. 

Corporate monopolies not only restrict workers, but consumers as well. Giants like Apple and John Deere use licensing and restrictions on repair instructions and diagnostic tools to limit the ability to fix products like laptops and tractors. In recent years Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL- Maplewood, has championed legislation that would grant Minnesotans the right to repair the things they own.

(See all the names with “DFL” next to them? Republicans, who frequently take aim at Big Tech, and say they stand for small business and self-reliant communities, should join Democrats as they take on entrenched corporate power that is hurting everyone from small retailers to farmers.) 

There is plenty more legislators can do to improve Minnesota’s antitrust laws, strengthen labor protections and protect fair markets against concentrated corporate power. 

The recent legislative initiatives detailed here demonstrate the stage is set for action. With nearly three-fourths of voters dissatisfied with the size and influence of major corporations, legislators would be wise to seize this historic moment.

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Justin Stofferahn
Justin Stofferahn

Justin Stofferahn lives in White Bear Township and is a public affairs professional who has worked on a variety of tax and economic development issues and is a member of the Minnesota Main Street Alliance leadership team.