Ben Wray: The United Airlines battering is no surprise - corporations are used to pushing us around

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal head of policy Ben Wray says corporations are pretty brazen when it comes to power over the public

"RE-ACCOMMODATE" – it may become the new Orwellian buzzword for corporate violence.

That’s what Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, apologised for after a viral video emerged of a man being beaten up and violently removed from a flight. He didn’t apologise to the man, or for the violence that passengers had to witness. He apologised because the airline had to "re-accommodate these customers".

When one gets into the detail of what happened on United Express Flight 3411 heading from Chicago to Louisville and why, it is almost as bad as the video itself.

First of all, the flight was overbooked. Deliberately. Apparently airlines calculate the average number of cancellations and sell too many seats on purpose. Corporate greed means they organise their flights with the distinct possibility that they may have to tell a paying customer to get off.

Worse: the passengers being asked to leave the flight were not even asked to do so to make way for other passengers. United Airlines decided it wanted to "accommodate" four members of staff to Louisville for another flight. So it's greediness squared.

Then we get to the violence. Airline staff asked four customers to voluntarily leave the flight to make way for the staff, and threw in £322, a hotel room for the night, and a flight the following afternoon. No one budged. They upped the ante - £644. Still no one budged.

It would be wrong to think of this as just one bad apple – corporate violence, assisted by the state, has become an increasingly pervasive and increasingly accepted part of our culture.

Then the selection process moved to forcible "re-accommodation". This is apparently not random. They don’t choose frequent flyers and high-fare paying customers – yet more greed. Two couples were picked out. One couple left, and while the wife of the other couple left, the husband refused because he is a doctor and had patients to see the next morning.

At this point – one would think the airline would have used some common sense. Ask someone else? Up the ante – throw in £1,000, or hell why not £5,000: if it’s so important, why not? After all it’s their mistake. Or they could have just decided to get the staff to Louisville on another flight and leave the customers at peace.

Instead, the police were called on to the flight and the bloody scenes commenced. The doctor, Vietnamese, shouted that his origins were the reason he had been targeted, one passenger said after. Many passengers started screaming. A group of high-school students left the flight in disgust. 

After a three-hour delay – where apparently the man was removed from the flight a second time on a stretcher and all passengers were removed from the flight and brought back on again – the flight got underway.

Munoz sent a letter to his staff later, repeatedly blaming the doctor for what had unfolded.

 

 

Here’s how United Airlines twitter responded to the episode:

 

 

And here’s how they responded when people started saying they would never fly with them again:

 

 

Not surprisingly, this incident has been met with widespread derision and United Airlines will pay the price for it. But it would be wrong to think of this as just one bad apple – corporate violence, assisted by the state, has become an increasingly pervasive and increasingly accepted part of our culture.

My main experience of "re-accommodation" has been when doing public stalls and campaigning outside shops and shopping centres. Security guards – probably based on the orders of their superiors – appear to have the view that there is no such thing as public space, and even if you are outside the shopping centre and getting in the way of nobody, you are in their commercial sphere and thus putting off people with all your non-commodified messages and leaflets.

It doesn’t take long after pointed refusal on the part of campaigners for security to descend first to threats, then intimidation, and to finally stating in a firm tone that they are calling the police. Sometimes they don’t actually follow through – they usually have no legal basis for their position, they are just trying to assert their authority over space, and they are not used to it being contested.

In reality, it is corporations that are frequently violating the space of the public. Try walking down a high street without experiencing mawkish music blaring out of a shop or big signs erected on the street to entice you inside. Maybe we should start asking the police to "re-accommodate" these obstructions – it would be interesting to see how they respond.

We are now living in an age where the president of the most powerful country in the world unashamedly promotes the idea that he wants to run America like a corporation. We are descending into corporatocracy – corporate rule over the people, aided by the state.

Protests took place in Glasgow and Edinburgh a while ago after a different type of violent corporate "re-accommodation". Byron Burgers invited 35 staff to what it said was a training day – in reality it had been co-ordinating with immigration officers to have the workers deported due to working under false documentation.

There is, of course, much worse violence by international corporations that those of us in the West benefit from in cheap products: the child labour and horrific working conditions of the sweatshops of the global south. Then there is the corporate eco-violence of timber companies destroying whole communities in, for example, the Amazon, or the corporate animal violence that is killing off whole species to create luxury goods in ivory, for instance.

Finally, and one we should pay particular attention to given events of the last week, is the corporate violence of the arms trade. One of the UK’s major industries is based on getting rich out of creating killing machines for despots. Indeed, it has been conveniently ignored that the UK Government allowed a British company to sell nerve gas chemicals to Syria.

We are now living in an age where the president of the most powerful country in the world unashamedly promotes the idea that he wants to run America like a corporation. He has filled his cabinet to the brim with corporate billionaires.

We are descending into corporatocracy – corporate rule over the people, aided by the state. The battering of a Vietnamese doctor by US cops on flight 3411 is merely emblematic of our times.

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