Skip to main content
2. Applying the Merger Guidelines

2.10. Guideline 10: When a Merger Involves Competing Buyers, the Agencies Examine Whether It May Substantially Lessen Competition for Workers, Creators, Suppliers, or Other Providers

A merger between competing buyers may harm sellers just as a merger between competing sellers may harm buyers. [Endnote 49] The same—or analogous—tools used to assess the effects of a merger of sellers can be used to analyze the effects of a merger of buyers, including employers as buyers of labor. Firms can compete to attract contributions from a wide variety of workers, creators, suppliers, and service providers. The Agencies protect this competition in all its forms.

A merger of competing buyers can substantially lessen competition by eliminating the competition between the merging buyers or by increasing coordination among the remaining buyers. It can likewise lead to undue concentration among buyers or entrench or extend the position of a dominant buyer. Competition among buyers can have a variety of beneficial effects analogous to competition among sellers. For example, buyers may compete by raising the payments offered to suppliers, by expanding supply networks, through transparent and predictable contracting, procurement, and payment practices, or by investing in technology that reduces frictions for suppliers. In contrast, a reduction in competition among buyers can lead to artificially suppressed input prices or purchase volume, which in turn reduces incentives for suppliers to invest in capacity or innovation. Labor markets are important buyer markets. The same general concerns as in other markets apply to labor markets where employers are the buyers of labor and workers are the sellers. The Agencies will consider whether workers face a risk that the merger may substantially lessen competition for their labor. [Endnote 50] Where a merger between employers may substantially lessen competition for workers, that reduction in labor market competition may lower wages or slow wage growth, worsen benefits or working conditions, or result in other degradations of workplace quality. [Endnote 51] When assessing the degree to which the merging firms compete for labor, evidence that a merger may have any one or more of these effects can demonstrate that substantial competition exists between the merging firms.

Labor markets frequently have characteristics that can exacerbate the competitive effects of a merger between competing employers. For example, labor markets often exhibit high switching costs and search frictions due to the process of finding, applying, interviewing for, and acclimating to a new job. Switching costs can also arise from investments specific to a type of job or a particular geographic location. Moreover, the individual needs of workers may limit the geographical and work scope of the jobs that are competitive substitutes.

In addition, finding a job requires the worker and the employer to agree to the match. Even within a given salary and skill range, employers often have specific demands for the experience, skills, availability, and other attributes they desire in their employees. At the same time, workers may seek not only a paycheck but also work that they value in a workplace that matches their own preferences, as different workers may value the same aspects of a job differently. This matching process often narrows the range of rivals competing for any given employee. The level of concentration at which competition concerns arise may be lower in labor markets than in product markets, given the unique features of certain labor markets. In light of their characteristics, labor markets can be relatively narrow.

The features of labor markets may in some cases put firms in dominant positions. To assess this dominance in labor markets (see Guideline 6), the Agencies often examine the merging firms’ power to cut or freeze wages, slow wage growth, exercise increased leverage in negotiations with workers, or generally degrade benefits and working conditions without prompting workers to quit.

If the merger may substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly in upstream markets, that loss of competition is not offset by purported benefits in a separate downstream product market. Because the Clayton Act prohibits mergers that may substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly in any line of commerce and in any section of the country, a merger’s harm to competition among buyers is not saved by benefits to competition among sellers. That is, a merger can substantially lessen competition in one or more buyer markets, seller markets, or both, and the Clayton Act protects competition in any one of them. [Endnote 52] If the parties claim any benefits to competition in a relevant buyer market, the Agencies will assess those claims using the frameworks in Section 3.

Just as they do when analyzing competition in the markets for products and services, the Agencies will analyze labor market competition on a case-by-case basis.

[Endnote 49] See, e.g., Mandeville Island Farms, Inc. v. Am. Crystal Sugar Co., 334 U.S. 219, 235-36 (1948) (“The [Sherman Act] does not confine its protection to consumers, or to purchasers, or to competitors, or to sellers................ The Act is comprehensive in its terms and coverage, protecting all who are made victims of the forbidden practices by whomever they may be perpetrated.”).

[Endnote 50] See, e.g., Alston, 141 S. Ct. 2141 (applying the Sherman Act to protect workers from an employer-side agreement to limit compensation).

[Endnote 51] A decrease in wages is understood as relative to what would have occurred in the absence of the transaction; in many cases, a transaction will not reduce wage levels, but rather slow wage growth. Wages encompass all aspects of pecuniary compensation, including benefits. Job quality encompasses non-pecuniary aspects that workers value, such as working conditions and terms of employment.

[Endnote 52] Often, mergers that harm competition among buyers also harm competition among sellers as a result. For example, when a monopsonist lowers purchase prices by decreasing input purchases, they will generally decrease sales in downstream markets as well. (See Section 4.2.D)