Make America Great, Boycott United [Watch]

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., The Wall Street Journal

United Airlines has long been, forgive the rudeness, kind of a dumb company.

Remember it was United in the mid-1990s that got the bright idea, in a business that routinely yielded no profits or capital appreciation, of handing employees 55% of ownership as if this would improve employee incentives.

Employees were not dumb, though several other adjectives come to mind. Leading the buyout was a pilot’s union chief who told his members their approach in running the company would not be to kill the golden goose, but just to “choke it by the neck until it gives us every last egg.”

Though pilots were major shareholders in the company from 1994 until its 2002 bankruptcy, they never tired of trying to extort untimely pay increases by engaging in undeclared, illegal work slowdowns. Over eight days in 2008, one such action caused 329 flights to be canceled and left 36,000 travelers stranded when healthy pilots called in sick.

So much for changed incentives. The same tactics passengers may also remember for 2000’s “summer of hell,” and even from 1993, when United’s workers were still trying to buy the airline. Think about it: Employees hoped to take over a company by destroying its reputation with customers.

Usually we try to avoid anthropomorphizing a business corporation. Businesses have “cultures” but they are not immutable. Personnel change. Management changes. Market conditions change.

United had plenty of defenders when, in 2005, this column saw an overdue test case of whether the U.S. bankruptcy system still served the larger good of society or was merely a means to preserve zombie companies for the benefit of organized labor. United at the time was the latest of a series of carriers to use the bankruptcy court conveniently to shuck off debts and other “legacy costs” so they could return to the marketplace and make life difficult for competitors still struggling to honor their obligations.

Let United be liquidated rather than reorganized, we suggested at the time. Let United become a well-deserved sacrifice so the rest of the industry could have a chance at profitability.

The response was a flood of email from United employees suggesting a variety of unnatural acts with office supplies. United pilots in particular seemed to be under the impression that columnists still use typewriters, though their suggestions were impossible.

All this we offer as background for the latest seminal outrage, which has the feeling of an important national moment.

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