#2. American Express Acts as Benefactor to an Ocean's Eleven-Style Heist That Nearly Topples the Stock Market
As we've seen throughout this article, big business often operates on logic that's closer to street justice than the kind practiced in the courtroom. For instance, vouching for the wrong guy can't get you put in jail, but it often comes with a death penalty on the streets and in the boardroom.
"If this deal falls through, you'll be leveraging your synergy through a straw."
Criminals can't look up the credit rating of a potential drug mule or the success rate of a prospective getaway driver. So when it comes to evaluating the quantity and quality of a shit that a potential partner is worth, they have to rely on the complex math of street cred. (Who vouches for you? Who vouches for the guy vouching for you? Wait, didn't they hear that YOU TURNED SISSY IN THE JOINT? Ha, the sissy thing was a test, and you passed. Now you just have to kill a guy and you've got a street credit rating of 740, which is pretty good.) It may not be a perfect science, but the point is, criminals know better than to just assume someone is trustworthy because they say they are.
There are of course more official, less convoluted ways to determine a company's Wall Street cred in the world of business, but the cost of backing the wrong guy can be just as deadly. Therefore, you'd think that the background checks run by major corporations would be at least as thorough as the ones used by mobsters. Especially credit card companies, who have the "cred" part right there in their job description. Unfortunately for anyone holding American Express stock in the 1960s, the process for evaluating potential American Express partners had very little in common with the brutally judicious mafia bosses in the Godfather and had more of a Nanny from Muppet Babies vibe, happy to absently mutter "You kids be good now" before leaving the room for an irresponsible period of time.
Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images
"Don't drink any of the candy I keep under the sink."
This became a problem when a salad oil importer that American Express had been vouching for fooled them and the entire financial world with the oldest, most insultingly stupid trick in the petty criminal playbook. If you've ever watched a movie in which a drug transaction takes place, or paid $75 for an eighth of oregano, you're familiar with the trick. The reason drug dealers in movies always taste the bag of white powder is because they want to be sure the drug mule hasn't swapped it with baking soda. The drug mule will usually say something like "C'mon, Rico! What am I, an idiot? You think I'd scam you?" But Rico always, always tests the product, because the only thing deader than a drug mule trying to sell baking soda to a drug dealer is the drug dealer who actually manages to fall for that shit.
Dissolve fade back to the offices of American Express in the early '60s. A guy with a suspicious background selling mystery meat to the school lunch program with the suspiciously Italian name of Anthony "Tino" De Angelis is making the suspicious claim that he controls most of the nation's supply of vegetable oil and offering a suspiciously good deal to American Express if they vouch for him and let him keep his shit at their house. Background checks on his importing company reveal a credit rating of "punk-ass bitch who needs to get got." In the criminal underworld, this would be a clear cut verdict of "ass kicking for having wasted your time."
"Our preliminary research indicates a face only a shiv could love."
Instead, American Express spent the next couple of years vouching for De Angelis to anyone who would listen. When this happens in the movies, it's usually because the voucher and vouchee come from the same neighborhood (Rounders) or the same ball sack (The Godfather) or did time together (Reservoir Dogs, Heat). It's unclear why American Express vouched for De Angelis. Maybe they just realized that if he wasn't a scumbag, they'd be way richer, and if he was a scumbag ... hey, let's start talking about the one where we get rich again. And so, American Express spent the next couple of years insisting that De Angelis was a real stand-up guy, and everyone assumed they knew what they were talking about and lent him money for the insane amounts of 100 percent pure, uncut salad oil he claimed to be storing in American Express-owned warehouses.
Even after they realized that De Angelis was storing more salad oil in their warehouse than existed in the entire rest of the country, and even when they heard rumors that De Angelis had installed pipes under the enormous tanks in their warehouse, they never strayed from their official judgment: The guy's a good shit.
"Or a dumbshit. Or a piece of shit. The point is, he's some type of shit."
Imagine that movie drug transaction, only when the guy tells Rico, "You can trust me," Rico was like "Oh, well in that case, I'll buy all of it, and sell it to the least fucking-around drug dealers I know for the price of 100 percent pure cocaine." And then before they've had a chance to hear back from any of the drug dealers, Rico realizes that they've sold more cocaine than technically exists in the world, and he starts to hear rumors that there are giant piles of powdered sugar and baking soda boxes scattered around his drug mule's car. Well, you can probably guess how many creative ways Rico would be murdered by the end of the movie. Unless you were working for American Express in the early 1960s, in which case you're waiting to find out what Rico spent all of his well-earned money on.
It turned out De Angelis was the worst kind of shit. The only difference between the hypothetical scenario that fooled Rico and the salad oil swindle is that De Angelis had realized that he could take the worthless decoy in the drug switcheroo, a grocery item, and turn it into $200 million. He just needed a gullible partner and something even more worthless than groceries. For the decoy, he settled on the most abundant and worthless liquid on the planet: seawater. The warehouse that was supposed to be full of most of the salad oil in America was actually mostly full of seawater. There was a little salad oil on the top, which fooled inspectors (oil rises, and people generally only check the surface of shipments when they're being imported by companies that American Express says are good for it). Once the oil was in the warehouse, they piped oil and seawater back and forth between containers, which worked as long as American Express only looked in the tanks De Angelis said to look in when he said to look in them. Which must have been exactly what they did, since they never discovered the scheme.
"This is food, not underpants. Why waste time with thorough inspections?"
When salad oil began to plummet on the market and customers came to them for the salad oil they'd paid too much money for, the scheme was discovered, De Angelis disappeared with hundreds of millions of dollars, and American Express was on the hook for more money than they actually had at the time.
In fact, the only reason American Express is still a company today and not just a cautionary tale is because Warren Buffett decided that they'd learned their lesson and saved them from bankruptcy, although it's impossible to guess how many people he made them kill to prove they were good for it.
#1. Coal Companies -- Bringing Full-Scale War and the U.S. Army Against Unions
The United States is what's known as a mixed economy, meaning the private sector (rich people and corporations) share control of the economy with the public sector (government programs and laborers), and it's estimated that over 90 percent of the country's most boring arguments are over which of those sides has too much influence. But the U.S. didn't arrive at its blend of regulation and mostly no regulation without a fight.
Underwood Archives / Getty
And not one of those boring, Congress-y word fights either.
When it suddenly emerged as the world's largest economy in the late 19th century, the U.S. was a mess of strikes, union busting, unsafe workplaces, and "company towns." Certain modern towns get called "company towns" because a bunch of the people there all work for the same company -- Atlanta and Coca-Cola, Orlando and Disney, Los Angeles and the gay propaganda machine that makes all of your movies and TV shows. The company towns in coal country were sort of like that, except there was literally only one company in town, and they owned your house, the school your kids went to, and the private detectives that threw your wife and kids out into the rain when you asked for reasonable wages. Of course, that didn't always happen. It wasn't always raining.
In 1912, the United Mine Workers of America were working on unionizing the coal mines in West Virginia, and it wasn't going well. That year, the coal miners of Paint and Cabin Creeks held themselves a strike. When unionizing miners were thrown out of their company-owned towns with their families, they set up tent towns on the outskirts. That's when the companies declared martial law, driving armored trains through the tent towns and machine gunning the men, women, and children staying there. In that one strike alone, 50 people were murdered, more starved to death, and everyone agreed that they probably shouldn't set up tents on the part of the outskirts with the machine gun train tracks running through the middle of it. And yet, through sheer tyranny of will, the miners in Paint and Cabin Creeks were able to unionize. In fact, all but a few of the company towns around the Blair Mountain mine were unionized by the time the 1920s roared in. If you're even a little bit good at pattern recognition, you can probably guess how the Blair Mountain coal bosses felt about unions. Hint: They had outlasted the coal bosses who machine-gun trained the coal miner pillow forts. But in 1921, the unions decided it was time to take on the real Final Boss.
"Wait till their heads glow, then shoot!"
The famed union activist and total killjoy Mother Jones led over 10,000 unionized miners down to Blair Mountain, where they faced down 2,000 sheriffs, state police, and company security representing the companies operating the mines. In case you're still picturing modern labor strikes with picket-sign-wielding, rock-throwing workers facing off against a billy-clubbing riot squad, this conflict was much closer to what the modern world calls "all-out war."
First of all, since this was 1920s rural West Virginia, everyone was armed.
Living on Earth
So not all that different from West Virginia today.
There were a few days of intermittent shooting before the two sides turned the back roads of West Virginia into the Spanish Civil War. The companies managed to keep it at a controlled simmer while they were outnumbered and waited on word from the president about reinforcements.
No, not the company president. U.S. President Warren G. Harding had a rooting interest in the coal bosses maintaining their stranglehold over their towns, since the country was still largely running on coal, and also because, hard as it might be for modern readers to imagine, politics at the time was heavily influenced by the interests of wealthy white guys. Once Harding let the companies know the Army was on its way, the coal bosses knew they had the miners right where they wanted them.
What happened next was like a mini-Gettysburg. The miners and company fought for days, with the miners doing their best to take advantage of their numbers, and the company doing their best to out-Snidely Whiplash the little guys. They had better weapons and more ammunition, and at one point, they even wrangled up a bunch of planes that had been used in World War I and bombed and gassed the miners. The U.S. Air Force supplied more modern bombers, who flew in from Maryland and took aerial photos of the miners' positions, making it one of the only times air power was used on U.S. citizens.
Like 1920s Google Maps, if Google was openly trying to kill you.
Despite their many disadvantages, the miners actually managed to get into the counties they wanted to unionize. However, they had to relent when the Army arrived with enough ground troops to paint the town with anyone the coal bosses pointed at. The miners retreated, hiding their guns and ammo on the way in case the battle sparked up again.
Preservation Alliance of West Virginia
"You two for treason and you two for dressing like newsies."
When the battle ended, 100 people were dead and over 1 million bullets had been fired. To this day, you can still find weapons and ammunition where the fleeing miners hid it inside old trees and crevices between rocks.
The government tried to keep it quiet that they'd supplied bombers, the military, and flat-out war against people who only wanted what the rest of the United States had. But the miners would ultimately be vindicated in the 1930s when the horrific working conditions in Appalachian coal mines were exposed. Fourteen years later, all of West Virginia was unionized, and American corporations never abused their power ever again.
When not finding ways businesses have screwed people over, Evan V. Symon is a workshop moderator and can be found on Facebook.
For more companies to boycott, check out 6 Companies That Are Clearly Catering to Supervillains and 6 Companies That Rigged the Game (And Changed the World).
And stop by LinkSTORM to learn why you should just go ahead and live off the grid.
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