Labor Antitrust's Paradox
20 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2019 Last revised: 25 Jul 2019
Date Written: July 18, 2019
Growing inequality, the decline in labor’s share of national income, and increasing evidence of labor market concentration and employer buyer power are all subjects of national attention, eliciting wide-ranging proposals for legal reform. Many proposals hinge on labor market fixes and empowering workers within and beyond existing work law or through tax-and-transfer schemes. But a recent surge of interest focuses on applying antitrust law in labor markets, or “labor antitrust.” These proposals call for more aggressive enforcement by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as well as stronger legal remedies for employer collusion and unlawful monopsony that suppresses workers’ wages.
The turn to labor antitrust is driven in part by congressional gridlock and the collapse of labor law as a dominant source of labor market regulation, inviting regulation through other means. Labor antitrust promises an effective attack because agency discretion and judicial enforcement can police labor markets without substantial amendments to existing law, bypassing the current impasse in Congress. Further, unlike labor and employment law, labor antitrust is uniquely positioned to challenge industry-wide wage suppression; suing multiple employers is increasingly challenging in work law as a statutory, doctrinal, and procedural matter.
But current labor antitrust proposals, while fruitful, are fundamentally limited in two ways. First, echoing a broader antitrust policy crisis, they inherit and reinvigorate debates about the current consumer welfare goal of antitrust. The proposals ignore that, as a theoretical and practical matter, employers’ anticompetitive conduct in labor markets does not necessarily harm consumers. As a result, workers’ labor antitrust challenges will face an uphill battle under current law: where consumers are not harmed, labor antitrust can neither effectively police employer buyer power nor fill gaps in labor market regulation left by a retreating labor law. Second, the proposals ignore real synergies between antitrust enforcement and labor regulation that could preempt the rise of employer buyer power and contain its exercise.
This Essay analyzes the limitations of current labor antitrust proposals and argues for regulatory sharing between antitrust and labor law to combat the adverse effects of employer buyer power. It makes three key contributions. First, it frames the new labor antitrust as disrupting a grand regulatory bargain, reinforced by the Chicago School, that segregated labor and antitrust regulation to resolve a perceived paradox in serving two masters: workers and consumers. The dominance of the consumer welfare standard resolved that paradox. Second, it explains how scholarly attempts to invigorate labor antitrust fail to overcome this paradox and ignore theoretical and doctrinal roadblocks to maximizing both worker and consumer welfare, leaving worker plaintiffs vulnerable to failure. Third, it proposes a novel restructuring of labor market regulation that integrates antitrust and labor law enforcement to achieve coherent and effective regulation of employer buyer power. It refocuses labor antitrust claims on consumer welfare ends and relegates worker welfare considerations to a labor law supplemented and fortified by the creation of substantive presumptions and defenses triggered by labor antitrust findings as well as labor agency involvement in merger review.
Keywords: Antitrust Law, Labor Law
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