State Senate Has Passed the ’21st Century Antitrust Act’ Targeting Amazon, Apple and Others
Congress has started taking a bipartisan approach to curbing unchecked monopoly power. Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine is in court suing Amazon in particular, but latter-day trust-busters in New York State are confronting big tech barons in a way that could soon become a model for the entire nation.
The 21st Century Antitrust Act is the Empire State’s first serious attempt to update its antitrust laws since 1893, when the stultified Donnelly Act was initially enacted. But advocates insist the act has the potential to clear out decades worth of legislative rot and crud and finally subject monopolistic mega-corporations, including Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Walmart, to some real sanctions with teeth.
“I talk to people every day — coast to coast — who are looking for new and innovative ways to protect their workers, their local businesses, their public resources from the abusive tactics and extraction of dominant corporations.” So said Pat Garofalo, director of state and local policy at the American Economic Liberties Project to bill advocates at a gathering outside an Amazon bookstore in New York City on Nov. 10.
“I can tell you for a fact, they are all watching this effort and this bill — the federal government is watching this effort and this bill.”
Today’s robber barons aren’t any more powerful now than they were during the Gilded Age.
Garofalo’s group is allied with New Yorkers for a Fair Economy (NYFE) — a coalition of unions, small business owners and community organizations that formed in support of the 21st Century Antitrust Act. ALIGN (Alliance for a Greater New York), one of New York City’s leading worker advocacy groups, is a principal member.
“It is no secret that one of the main reasons for racial and economic injustice is the power that corporations have in our country and in our state — corporations throughout the state, whether it is Amazon, Google, Apple — anybody in tech e-commerce that makes billions out of the suffering of our communities,” ALIGN Executive Director Maritza Silva-Farrell said.
“We saw that this year and this past pandemic. Amazon, by itself, made $90 billion when small businesses were closing down, when communities were shuttering. It is a critical issue for all of us.”
Opponents of the act argue that the legislation is too broadly written. Instead of reining in Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, et al, it will actually hurt small business owners, they said.
“If you think the laws are working just fine and you’re happy with the way things are, you’re going to oppose this bill,” New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens). “The [antitrust] laws were criticized for being broad a hundred years ago when they were written.”
Assembly Still Dickering
The 21st Century Antitrust Act passed the New York State Senate in June. Gianaris is its prime sponsor. The New York State Assembly, where Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-The Bronx) is the bill’s prime sponsor, has yet to pass the bill, however.
“We have provisions to allow the attorney general of the state to issue guidelines with some specificity behind it. So, it’s not at all broad,” Gianaris added. “People complaining that it’s broad are complaining that we’re trying to do it at all.”
NYFE picked Amazon’s brick and mortar store at 7 West 34th Street in Manhattan to announce its debut. The group is also aligned with Athena — a nationwide coalition of working people and small business owners formed two years ago to confront the increasing power of Amazon and other multi-billion-dollar corporations.
New York State Senator and Labor Committee Chair Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), another proponent of the act, said the nation was able to climb out of the Gilded Age more than a century ago by investing in workers and communities and empowering the government to break up monopolies.
“We are surrounded by monopolistic corporations; we are in the epicenter of the new Gilded Age,” she said at the NYFE launch. “Right now, the richest one-percent of Americans own more than the rest of the entire middle class in this country. Profits are through the roof and new billionaires are being minted every single year. Four corporations own almost the entire national media market. Three companies own more than 95 percent of consumer credit cards. Forty-percent of independent banks in New York and New York State are gone — and our local newspapers and radio stations have been bought out by corporations.”
Corporations ‘Sit on the Economy’
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University law professor and candidate for New York State attorney general, said the gutting of national antitrust laws began in earnest during the 1970s and 1980s. It produced a “40-year epidemic of wage theft worker abuse and destruction of small businesses.” The sole purpose of companies including Amazon, CVS and others, she said, is to “sit on top of the economy” and dictate terms to workers, communities and government.
“These companies are happy that they are able to take and steal the wealth from communities across this state,” Teachout said this month. “And the hardest hit communities are the Black and Brown communities whose small businesses have been destroyed — and [essential] Black and Brown workers who are often on the [front lines] and are being robbed by monopoly practices.”
LeRoy Johnson, head of New York Communities for Change’s Flatbush chapter — a grassroots organization also fighting economic oppression — owned and operated a small business on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn for 20 years.
Then, he said, Amazon came to town and put him out of business.
“Corporations hold too much power over our communities and this must stop,” Johnson told allies supporting the act. “They don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Abusive corporations refuse to give fair wages to their workers.
“These disgraceful companies have been forcing small businesses in our neighborhoods to close. Our mom and pop shops, grocery stores, clothing businesses — this is wrong. These abusive companies are making big, enormous profits while our small businesses are closing left, right and center.”
Katy Milani, senior policy advocate for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a founding coalition member of Small Business Rising, representing 150,000 independent small businesses across the country, reports similar concerns from her members.
“Monopoly power is the single biggest threat to small businesses — and this bill does a lot to help that, to sure up [small businesses] and [help them] compete in the market today,” she said.
For a long time now, Amazon and other mega-corporations wielding hundreds of billions of dollars and huge huge swaths of the market, have been able to skirt serious judicial sanctions by pointing to low or falling retail prices — a huge determining factor for courts considering cases involving corrosive monopolistic practices.
New York’s act seeks to upset that paradigm and give courts more power to prosecute companies operating as monopolies.
According to Garofalo, today’s robber barons aren’t any more powerful now than they were during the Gilded Age, and can, indeed, be made subject to truly robust antitrust regulation.
“It’s happened before,” he says. “We broke up Ma Bell. We’ve done the things you have to do historically to break up these corporations. Just because we haven’t done it in 60 years doesn’t mean we can’t do it now.”
But it all comes down to the laws.
Said Garofalo: “Is [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg ever going to be swayed by anything but the law and the potential of handcuffs?”
Amazon did not respond to repeated requests for comment.