After Chicago aviation cops violently dragged David Dao, a paying passenger, from his seat on United Airlines Flight 3411, I had what at first glance might be an odd reaction. I immediately remembered waking from a doze in the shotgun seat of my then-girlfriend's car many years ago to find that she'd cut into the line at a busy gas station, starting a confrontation with a driver who was under the impression that his patience had earned him a turn at the pump.
"My boyfriend is going to kick your ass," she yelled.
"I am?" I remember wondering to myself, before proceeding to face the poor guy down. Let's say I was a guilty partner in an unhealthy relationship.
United and the Chicago aviation police have an awfully familiar dynamic going in their own relationship. United sold seats on its flight to customers who were given the impression they'd be transported from Chicago to Louisville in return for cash. Then United suffered seller's remorse when company officials realized they had employees who needed to get to the same destination, and the easiest way to get them there was to pull a fast one and cut in line for the seats they'd already sold. When Dao objected, they got the aviation police to kick his ass.
"This violent incident should never have happened and was a result of gross excessive force by Chicago Department of Aviation personnel," the United pilots' union objected after the incident—which is true as far as it goes. Just as I doubt my old girlfriend would have cut that line if she hadn't been sure I'd back her play, it's unlikely that United would have been so comfortable ordering paying customers off the plane if the cops hadn't been there to twist arms. But that still leaves people making skeevy decisions based on confidence that a partner will back them with violence.
Like I said, unhealthy relationships.
This is hardly the first time that a government agency has played the part of the meathead in the shotgun seat on behalf of a partner with bad judgment. Politicians, police chiefs, and military officers have frequently exercised violence at the urging of powerful people who found arm-twisting to be more convenient than negotiation for settling disputes.
Corporations have benefited on numerous high-profile occasions from the deployment of truncheons and bullets, even if their reputations ultimately took as much of a beating as labor union representatives as a consequence (something that continuously comes as a revelation to them, as United is currently demonstrating). While labor and business people might both have pushed their disagreements over the line to brutality during the heated strikes of the 19th and early 20th centuries, there are few private disputes that can't be made worse by the addition of troops. That may have been most effectively demonstrated during the "Ludlow Massacre" of 1914, when Colorado National Guardsmen attacked a strikers' tent colony at the bidding of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CFIC) and killed dozens of people, including women and children.
That calling in government force, however attractive it might have seemed at the time to CFIC management, had some public relations downsides is apparent from the fact that the Rockefeller family which was heavily involved in the firm is still trying to atone for the incident, with David Rockefeller Jr. visiting the site earlier this year.
And Flight 3411 was hardly the first time Chicago law enforcement were in the thick of the action—they played a very hands-on role by inflicting casualties, including 10 deaths, during the Republic Steel strike of 1937.
Federal forces intervened in favor of corporations in numerous labor disputes, too—so many times that tracking them became a cottage industry for some academics by the middle of the 20th century.
While politicians primarily courted business early in the days of loaning out their favors, they eventually learned that there was much to be gained from also sharing them with labor. Corporations may have had money to offer in return, but unions could offer votes and feet on the ground. True too, corporate executives are as easily deterred by lawyers as by rifles, so government thuggery on behalf of labor tends to be more implicit than explicit, and far less bloody as a result.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic shotgun-rider when it came to helping out labor unions was President Harry Truman. He repeatedly seized industrial properties to settle labor-management disagreements, culminating in his effort only when he tried to take control of the entire steel industry on his own authority. The Supreme Court effectively told him to get back in the car by ruling that presidential power didn't extend quite so far.
Truman's arm-twisting, it should be noted, continued the tradition of such moves ending up as public relations disasters. While seizing the steel industry was far from his only unpopular decision, it didn't do much to help his impressively low public approval.
So if this long-standing unhealthy relationship between powerful businesses (and unions) and government so often ends in blood and public rebuke, why does it continue? Why cut in line, relying on the arm-twister riding shotgun to settle the resulting dispute, when the whole scenario is so likely to end with everybody looking like a thug?
Well, maybe United learned a lesson. At least, the airline says it won't eject seated passengers quite so violently in the future. Competitor Delta loudly agrees that paying passengers to vacate seats is preferable to thumping them. And the Chicago aviation police are apologizing up and down for their conduct.
But just as I saw benefits in behaving like a jerk at that gas station on behalf of a misbehaving girlfriend, government agencies and their partners in dysfunction have repeatedly acted in anticipation of gains to be had by teaming up in awful ways. Until that perception is gone, and the consequences clearly outweigh the expected profits, the brutal partnership will continue.