Opinion: Rooting out corporate greed is in our best interest

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Dave Dickey

By now, everyone knows that United Airlines stepped in it. Big time.

On April 10, a man was dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport after refusing to leave his assigned seat. Another passenger captured it all on a cell phone video. Was the forcibly removed man a terrorist? Was he on the FBI’s 10-most wanted list for some terrible, unspeakable crime? Was he Bashar al-Assad?

Nope, nope and nope.

Dr. David Dao was heading to Louisville, not knowing he was about to be assaulted and physically manhandled. He suffered a concussion, broken nose and had two teeth knocked out, according to reports. All because he wouldn’t leave his airplane seat, which he paid for, because the airplane was overbooked.

The video of the event went viral online and blanketed news coverage for days.

Overbooking is a policy that most airlines use to maximize their bottom lines. Unfilled seats mean lost revenue. So what the airlines do is sell more seats than the plane holds, figuring a few folk won’t show up. But when all the paying customers do want to get on a particular flight, it means some people will be bumped.

In Dao’s case, he had to involuntarily give up his seat for a United employee needing to get to Louisville for work. Really? When we watch the video, isn’t there a part of us that says: “This isn’t right.” This is not Syria, for gosh sake. Ethics matter.

That feeling is our conscience speaking. It’s a feeling we should not ignore. Corporate rules and capitalism should not create a system of immorality leading to loss of human dignity.

No United employee on that flight stepped in to stop the abuse. The rules have to be followed.

In the aftermath, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, who the previous month won an award as communicator of the year in airline industry circles, confirmed our worse fears about corporate America in responding to the mugging.

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” he said. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.

So, assault is re-accommodation! Feeling some outrage?

Long-time readers of my blogs will know that I believe corporate profitability is not king over human ethics, dignity and public safety. When greed becomes Big Ag’s god at the sacrifice of what is just and right, it must be called out for what it is — terribly wrong.

In virtually the same news cycle as the United debacle, a small mom-and-pop newspaper out in Iowa won a Pulitzer Prize for shining transparency on Big Ag corporations and farm pollution.

The Storm Lake Times, based in Buena Vista County, had to know the repercussions of taking on Big Ag interests in the heart the nation’s corn and soybean country. Lost advertisers. Scorn or worse from its farmer readers.

But when the Des Moines Water Works sued Buena Vista as well as two other counties for allowing too much nitrogen runoff from farm drainage into the rivers that supply the counties’ drinking water… well, that had to be covered.

Coverage included reporting detailing how the counties fought the lawsuit with undisclosed funding. Turns out, the money was coming from the farm bureau and other agricultural groups, who probably figured that the cheapest way to make the problem go away was to go to court rather than, you know, clean up the pollution.

Similar to the United Airlines case, it was an example of corporate greed clashing with ethics and human safety.

In an editorial, the Storm Lake Times’ owner wrote:

“Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion. The Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors appears to have a religious tenet that drainage districts shall not be regulated. They are willing to gamble the future of agriculture and the county’s taxpayers on that belief. We think they should look for the first opening to settle the case, but they would rather spend our money on three law firms (in Storm Lake, Des Moines and Washington) without bothering to wonder how much it will cost.”

The Pulitzer award committee noted that the Storm Lake Times published “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

When corporate America in general — and Big Ag in particular — puts self-interest and its bottom line ahead of ethics, we must speak up and shine the disinfectant of transparency on the issue. Human beings are more important than the “all-mighty-buck.” We have an obligation to act morally. It’s what should happen in democracies. It’s what must happen in democracies.

Congrats, Storm Lake Times.

You are a role model for all agricultural journalists.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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