Busting trusts in the 21st Century

“One sees his finish unless good government retakes the ship.”

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

When Hibbing mayor Victor Power took the stage at a Minneapolis Labor Day rally in 1915, he lambasted the powerful steel trust for its abuses of working people. Every person in the sprawling crowd knew he was talking about U.S. Steel.

Then the world’s largest corporation, the massive reach of U.S. Steel controlled the wages of not just Northern Minnesota miners, but held sway over the entire American labor force. It was a new kind of capitalistic behemoth. Forged in the storms of Teddy Roosevelt’s “trust busting” policies of the early 1900s, U.S. Steel took an old, fickle industry and launched it to new heights and new powers. It adapted to and eventually co-opted its political resistance.

It took decades for working people to achieve something even vaguely resembling equilibrium with U.S. Steel, or for its competitors around the world to catch up. In the process, men made fortunes. These bounties compound yet in the protected personal treasuries of a handful of people whose great-great grandfathers had a piece of the action. These folks still influence life here on the Iron Range, from the former Essar project near Nashwauk, to the expensive relocation of Highway 53 last year, to new incursions on Hibbing’s “North 40.”

Yet as we flash forward more than 100 years U.S. Steel seems a shadow of itself. Still going, but no longer dictating terms. ArcelorMittal, based in Luxembourg, reigns as the world’s biggest steel company, but even they do not capture the same kind of imagination.

In a Feb. 8, 2018 article in Esquire, Scott Galloway argues that today four companies hold an unprecedented influence over the day-to-day lives of Americans. Those companies are Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook. You won’t see those names emblazoned on the fences along mining property north of Hibbing. You will, however, see them on the phones carried by nearly every person who lives here or anywhere else.

Apple is the most profitable company in the world. It revolutionized the music industry, but more importantly the way that we live through smart phones. It faces stiffer competition now, but Apple remains the blue chip at the heart of our economy.

Google changed the way we consume information. Along with its YouTube product, Google controls and profits from the dissemination of nearly everything we read or see.

Amazon killed the mall, retail shopping, commercial real estate development and more. It’s a deadly menace to the way people like President Trump used to make their money, hence why he’s drawn Amazon into his Twitter tirades of late. (To be fair, malls and box stores helped kill local downtown businesses. There is plenty of blood on everyone’s hands, including those of us who changed our shopping habits — ie. everyone).

Though Wal-Mart remains America’s biggest company, it now reacts to the rise of Amazon. Wal-Mart and Target both seek e-commerce strategies in an era that will be dominated by what Amazon was created to do.

And then there is Facebook. What seemed at first to be a fun, novel way to interact with people online spurred the broad phenomenon of social media. Now, Facebook is in the news — a massively profitable company that either consciously or unconsciously shapes how its users think. It has become its own kind of brain, one that knows what we like and how we’ll react to certain stimuli.

It can be tempting to say that these companies — all tech-based, and all based in California — can be safely ignored by the likes of us here in Northern Minnesota. But like the New York and Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel of old, these distant powers shape our everyday lives.

If you stop to think, most of the major news and especially the controversies of our region are stoked by the power of these tech firms. Postal workers will tell you what kind of packages they most often place on our porches. Increasingly, we spend our precious time arguing about stories that only matter because they are constantly placed in front of us, written in such a way as to enflame our deep-seeded sensibilities.

Local issues only matter if they can be made viral. The flap over the “10 Commandments” plaque at the county courthouse prompted more views, shares and even old-school letters to the editor than any of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by St. Louis County over the past ten years.

One-hundred years after the primacy of U.S. Steel, we still see that corporations hold enormous non-democratic power over American citizens. However, one thing is very different. We can’t pin down where these forces come from or what their true motivations might be.

That is, unless you consider that we are the product. And that is a very different prospect, indeed. We could go on strike, but against whom? What would a modern day Victor Power demand in this year’s Labor Day speech?

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 22, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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