This special issue of The Forge was guest edited by Dania Rajendra and Jasmine Kerrissey. The convening it emerged from was planned by Rajendra and Kerrissey along with Eric Brakken, Javier Morillo-Alicea, and Lindsay Zafir. 


What makes a megacorporation a megacorporation? And what will organizing against the megacorporations of the 21st century require of us? Several seasoned community and labor organizers met in the fall of 2021 to grapple with these questions. This special issue of The Forge is a reflection of some of our thinking — as well as an invitation to others to join us in the conversation about organizing megacorporations. We don’t have all of the answers. 

Even without answers, the question of how to organize megacorporations is urgent for everyone who works for justice. Megacorporations are a consolidation of corporate power that threatens all working people and democracy itself. Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Steve Bannon, and their Dominonist allies put forward radical — arguably revolutionary — visions for our society predicated on worsening economic exploitation and cascading social violence that upholds the power of men, white people, the Christian Right, and the very wealthy. The fight with megacorporations isn’t only about our economy — it is about every aspect of our lives and our politics. It’s no overstatement: reining in these megacorporations is among the most important projects of the 21st century. 

So far, megacorporations have shown themselves to be effective campaigners. From the passage of Prop 22 in CA, which creates a new, lower standard for gig workers, to Amazon’s breaking the law to prevent the unionization of employees in Bessemer (a second election for the workers is currently underway), to Uber’s play for last-mile transit, megacorporations will not cede their ambitions or their power easily. 

As the inaugural director of Athena — the coalition of fifty-plus organizing and policy advocacy groups — I found that fighting even one megacorporation requires as much study and reflection as it does door knocking, rallying, Tweeting, and talking with public officials. That’s because megacorporations pose multiple challenges to organizers in all of our arenas of contest — electoral, workplace, and community — both in person and online. Initial efforts to organize them have been mostly unsuccessful. Despite creative organizing, door-to-door canvassing, and a full communications push, progressives are losing much more often than we’re winning. Even when we win — as a coalition of community and labor groups did in the Amazon HQ2 fight — we have not significantly changed the scope of the danger these companies present to workers, communities, the environment, and democracy. 

In the first flush of the pandemic, more people saw Amazon’s predatory business model for what it is. Amazon monetizes our misery, preys on communities’ vulnerability, and takes up space left by decades of government defunding. Still, some of the most insidious aspects of its business model can be hard to see. Amazon’s fastest growing revenue stream, for instance, is the fees it charges small businesses. Delivering the internet itself — not just products — undergirds its model. And its primary customers are government, military, and other businesses —  not Prime members. Really looking at the corporation’s model bumps up against some hard truths: consumers don’t have real power, and, too often, public officials lack the power or ability to stand up to megacorporations, despite the dangers they pose to workers, nearby residents, and the environment. This challenges progressives’ harm-reduction formulas and some fundamental strategic approaches: we can’t solve the problems Amazon poses by carving out protectections community by community or constituency by constituency. Looking closely at megacorporations is instructive because it shows us our economy as it is now — and where the institutions with the most money are trying to take us. 


What are Megacorporations?

Megacorporations are massive. They employ — either directly or indirectly — huge workforces. They also play an outsized role in multiple markets: consumer, business, and government. For example, Facebook dominates in advertising as well as social networking. Once Bayer acquired the agrochemical company Monsanto, the corporation’s dominance in both pharmaceuticals and agriculture made it a megacorporation. 

Of course, labor markets are markets too. Corporations that dominate labor market segments can set standards for working conditions and supply chain dynamics. Not all megacorporations pay exclusively low wages, but enough do that they have the power to drive down wages in some markets. For example, huge fast food empires employ legions of workers (directly or through franchises) at poverty wages and squeeze suppliers for every dime. 

Megacorporations don’t just influence government, though they certainly do that through lobbying and employer associations. They’re also increasingly enmeshed in the functioning of government — sometimes subsuming government functions altogether. The crisis goes beyond massive political spending, tax breaks, and other preferential treatments. Megacorporations undermine democracy by eluding public oversight and commandeering public resources to serve the needs of the corporation instead of the public.

Megacorporations also tend to occupy an outsized role in our cultural imagination, including what it means to be American (think: Ford and Walmart), how we imagine the future (Facebook, Google), how we consume media (Disney, Amazon), how we feed ourselves (Monsanto, McDonalds), and even how our money is deployed in the financial system (Blackstone).

Of course, while some companies — like Amazon — exhibit every feature of megacorporations, there are differences in degree. We could debate whether Ford or Starbucks or Home Depot are “as mega” as, say, Walmart, Exxon-Mobil, or Koch Foods. I don’t see that as particularly useful — it takes up a lot of time, and it can obscure the commonalities that power these corporations, where their weaknesses might overlap, and, therefore, where we might campaign against them most effectively. 


How do we organize megacorporations?

The essays in this issue offer several broad points of agreement on the path to organizing megacorporations: we must organize for the political economy of the 21st century, we must address racism and patriarchy directly, and we must organize workers as whole people and beyond the workplace.


New Approaches for a New Political Economy

The political economy that megacorporations operate in is different from the economy of the mid-20th century. The American postwar era offered us an economy that was growing, relatively stable, and supportive of an expanding public sector. From the 2008 crash to the privatization of everything to the ongoing war in Ukraine, it should be clear that that economic, social, and political configuration is over. With its sunset, the dominance of “regular” employment — 40-hour, long-term, w2-producing jobs — also faded, with many employers taking advantage of subcontracting, franchising, temporary, and “gig” work. As Lauren Jacobs argues in this issue, “We are not going to reconstruct the labor power of the postwar period by just ‘gutting it out’ in organizing battles, whether shop by shop or across entire sectors at a time. Even if we could somehow restore the union density of that era, the right has grown more sophisticated in exploiting race, the financialization of our economy, and the weaknesses of our political system to maintain its grasp on power." 

To successfully organize megacorporations, we must see our political economy for what it is and adjust our organizing strategies to meet this moment. Take, for instance, the NLRB apparatus built (and then diminished) during the 20th century. Many megacorporations have organized their structures to make the most of our patchwork and hyper-local regulatory environment — including hiring layers of subcontractors (who are not directly employed and, thus, excluded from bargaining units), encouraging high turnover, and locating themselves in right-to-work states or in suburbs and exurbs with fewer regulations and where progressives, historically, have had less power. Many have multiple worksites (each of which would require its own election). All of this makes it exceedingly challenging to win an NLRB election and for that election to break open organizing across the corporation. Nonetheless, those elections are still important. As we saw in Bessemer, even when the workers lose, the election can create an electric political moment that focuses widespread attention on corporate law-breaking, the oversized power of corporations, and the widespread shifts in working conditions. 

The power of the strike is also diminished by the structure of megacorporations. As megacorporations develop multiple streams of revenue, especially from data products and services and from business and government contracts, worker strikes often cannot create a financial crisis for the corporation. As with NLRB election campaigns, strikes and walkouts — such as those at Amazon and in the Fight for Fifteen — can focus traditional and social media on workers, corporations, and corporate power more generally. They also provide hooks for unions or community organizations to work with the executive branch at both state or federal levels to hold corporations accountable. We saw this when New York Attorney General Leticia James sued Amazon over health and safety violation, California’s then-Attorney General Xavier Baccera sued Amazon over its withholding of information around COVID-19, and, more recently, when the NLRB ordered the re-run of the Bessemer election and sued Amazon over firing a worker for his organizing efforts. But worker and community advocates need only look at our sister movements — including abortion access and voting rights — to the see the danger of relying solely on the legal system. We need, as Sam Nelson discusses in his essay, creative new strategies that extract maximum pain to force megacorporations to negotiate — and to ensure we can continue to enforce the agreements.  

With all that’s new and volatile, it’s tempting to toss our entire cannon or organizing tradition. But that’s where the careful study comes in. In this issue, historians Jasmine Kerressey and Judith Stepan-Norris share four key lessons from labor organizing in the 1930s. One of them is that, to organize new sectors such as manufacturing, organizers needed to change the movement. They built new institutions and expanded solidarity across race, gender, and geography to tackle the megacorporations and the political economy of their time — which included fascism, Jim Crow, and colonialism. To organize megacorporations in the 2020s, we must also confront the crises of our day: climate change, an ascendant global right wing, and persistent racism and patriarchy.

To meet the challenge of organizing megacorporations, we need to develop new organizing strategies and structures as well as implement the best practices we’ve learned from the most successful organizing drives of the past decades, such as the campaign at Smithfield that Gene Bruskin recounts in an interview in this issue. We must take risks and raise enough funds to pursue multiple strategies at the same time, as Jill Hurst notes in her interview for the issue. Experiments, even failed ones, teach us important lessons — and all experimentation is costly and requires patience, which is hard to hold in the face of funding pressures and the magnitude of the suffering that megacorporations create. Insufficient resources to experiment is, in my opinion, the biggest reason we have unnecessary conflict about the “best” strategy.


Addressing Race and Racism Head On 

It’s not optional to address race and racism directly when organizing. Megacorporations — like arguably everything else — are creatures of contemporary racial capitalism. They both profit from and worsen racism. As a recent report from Liberation in a Generation notes, “America’s legacy of racism drives and sustains corporate concentration…Corporations have seized control of many aspects of our lives that were once intended to serve the public good over private sector interests. “ Or, as the organization's co-founders, Solana Rice and Jeremie Greer often say, “racism is profitable.” 

Race and racism are intrinsic to the business models of megacorporations in ways that extend far beyond disproportionate treatment. Many megacorporations — especially technology corporations like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google — are defense and police contractors. Sure, the tech itself is racist, but more pernicious is that it creates incentives for megacorporations to develop increasing civilian markets for products and services that criminalize through surveillance or “prediction.” In the US (and in other countries), oppressing Black, brown, Indigenous, immigrant, and religious-minority residents is big business. One example is the Ring video doorbell, but there are hundreds of surveillance capitalism products. They’re, of course, used against organizers, protesters, and workers just doing their jobs. 

The kind of austerity politics that megacorporations drive — through the tax breaks they receive and the eye-popping wealth disparities they help to create — feeds the politics of racial and religious resentment promoted by strongmen such as Trump, Rick DeSantis, or Ted Cruz, along with their high-profile oligarchic backers such as Peter Thiel or Rebekka Mercer. 

Solidarity across difference is the only way to hold together the tattered remnants of our political democracy. In some ways, there is no better place to begin than in the authoritarian spaces of American workplaces. As Alphonso Mayfield argues in this issue, “The only way to win in the South is to get whites, Blacks, and other workers of color to align themselves in each other's self interest.” Based on my time organizing people to fight Amazon, that’s true not only in the South but across the US and around the world. In most places, Amazon hires vulnerable local populations — like returning citizens or refugees — to do the difficult and dangerous work the corporation runs on. 


Organizing Whole Workers and Beyond the Workplace

Amazon taught me, a third generation unionist, that worker organizing is necessary but not sufficient to defeat a megacorporation. It’s not only that worker organizations need to consider the whole identities of working people — who they are beyond where they work, the ways that local or cultural issues transcend the workplace. It’s also that defeating megacorporations will require everyone. The problems megacorporations pose go far beyond their abuses as employers, as Strea Sanchez and Andrea Dehlendorf and Stacy Mitchell all discuss in this issue. If we fix only, say, the health and safety problems at Amazon but leave the rest — the environmental devastation, the transformation of local economies, the gentrification, the undermining of democracy unaddressed — we’ll not be able to hold our wins inside the workplaces, nor will working people, as the democratic majority, win real governing power in our society. A corporation like Amazon links consumers, small businesses, workers, and people who live near their facilities with powerful shared interests. Those kinds of alliances are not new — similar ones helped power the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights movement — but building them is painstaking. If we are to win similar sweeping social change this time, we’ll need to overcome — by making amends for — our own movements’ patterns of exclusion and discrimination. We will also need to situate organizing megacorporations in a broader context of progressive work.  

All of this work — defining, studying, experimenting, losing campaigns, working across difference — is expensive, slow, and difficult. But frankly, we have few other choices and the alternative — a world in which Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, and their ilk divvy up land and people like colonial empires of yore — is a horrifying, deeply present prospect. Luckily, the company we get to keep in this work is fantastic, and struggling with other organizers is often deeply rewarding. We hope you’ll add your responses to these initial provocations, and join us in this fight. 


Inside the Issue 

Gene Bruskin on what organizers today can learn from the Smithfield victory; Andrea Dehlendorf and Strea Sanchez on why we need to challenge received organizing wisdom to successfully take on megacorporations; Jill Hurst on what labor can learn from ACT UP and the power of a militant minority;  Lauren Jacobs on the freedom of admitting our uncertainty about the path ahead; Jasmine Kerrissey and Judith Stepan-Norris on what organizers today can learn from the struggle to organize the manufacturing sector a century ago; Alphonso Mayfield on what labor can learn from organizing drives in the South; Stacy Mitchell on why small business owners are promising allies in defeating megacorporations; and Sam Nelson on why our organizing must match the structure of our target.   



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