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Workers end government shutdown by withholding labor, show path forward for unions

By Dave Schneider |
January 28, 2019
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Federal workers and other trade unionists rally against the shutdown in Jacksonv
Federal workers and other trade unionists rally against the shutdown in Jacksonville, FL. (Fight Back! News/Joseph Maceo George)

Jacksonville, FL – As the partial government shutdown entered its 35th day on January 25, federal workers gave the country a lesson in the power of labor. Citing “a slight increase in sick leave” at two of the largest air traffic control centers on the eastern seaboard, the Federal Aviation Authority ordered a 90-minute ground stop for flights going into LaGuardia Airport in New York City.

Within hours, President Donald Trump announced an end to the shutdown, after taking a deal offered three weeks earlier by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. The deal to reopen the government and provide back-pay to the 800,000 furloughed federal workers did not include funding for Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border or any additional funding for border security.

Why did Trump, the self-styled ‘master of deals’ who staked his presidency on the construction of a border wall, fold like a cheap suit on Day 35? The president had paid a steep cost for this debacle from the beginning when he publicly agreed to “own” the shutdown. Poll numbers consistently showed a solid majority of Americans blaming Trump for the shutdown.

But the credit for ending the longest government shutdown in U.S. history belongs to the working class - not political grandstanding by congressional Democrats or even poll numbers.

Government shutdown and the working class

The partial government shutdown began on December 22, 2018. Funding for a number of key agencies expired, and President Trump refused to sign any bill from Congress that did not include nearly $6 billion in funds for a wall along the southern border of the U.S.

The impasse left 800,000 federal workers, the majority of whom are unionized, furloughed and without pay. Over half of these furloughed workers, 420,000, were legally required to continue working without pay because their particular jobs are deemed ‘essential’, like air traffic controllers and airport security. Predictably, as time went on, many of these workers stopped showing up entirely. Absenteeism became rampant in the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) airport security operations, where TSA agents are already some of the lowest-paid federal workers.

Unions representing these furloughed workers, like the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), led protests and pickets in Washington D.C. and across the country. These efforts drew support from the rest of organized labor, particularly in adjacent industries to those affected by the shutdown. Union leaders forcefully argued that the stress on workers created by the shutdown, along with growing absenteeism and short-staffing, created major safety hazards and risks for both employees and the general public.

The Trump administration added fuel to the fire with a series of insulting comments and condescending advice to struggling workers and their families. Trump, a billionaire real estate mogul, ludicrously claimed he could “feel their pain,” while later suggesting hungry furloughed workers should just tell their local grocery stores that they would pay “later” at the checkout counter. Wilber Ross, Trump’s Commerce Secretary, publicly said he “couldn’t understand” why federal employees were complaining instead of “taking out loans” to pay for their necessities.

Further highlighting the class warfare at work during the shutdown, Trump and several of his officials began floating ideas for reducing or eliminating federal employees’ pensions. These anti-worker comments and proposals proved the final nail in the coffin for many workers who may have bought into Trump’s cynical populist campaign message in 2016. It became all too clear that Trump serves the same class and interests that he himself comes from: billionaires, banks and corporations.

Federal workers and the strike weapon

Some liberal journalists and political commentators brought up the idea of a federal employee strike early on, which drew criticism from some labor leaders. Joe Burns, a former negotiator for the Association of Flight Attendants and a prominent labor writer, wrote on the Reviving the Strike Facebook page, “So the New York Times who would never support federal workers’ right to strike, publishes a piece by Barbara Ehrenreich saying federal workers should strike. How about leave it to federal workers to decide and not have them be pawns in the so-called ‘resistance’? I love striking but am sick and tired of folks thinking they can call strikes for other people.”

Burns is right to criticize the out-of-hand suggestion to strike by comfortable liberals without skin in the game. Despite heavy unionization, federal workers have tremendous legal restrictions on their right to organize – restrictions imposed by many of the same politicians these commentators support. They are legally prohibited from striking, and workers who engage in a work stoppage face serious charges and a lifetime ban on federal employment. Federal employee unions cannot bargain over wages and benefits, which are set by Congress, and the Hatch Act severely limits their ability to lobby or engage in any political action.

Leaders of AFGE, including their international president, got arrested protesting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Washington D.C. just a few days before the shutdown ended, but on the whole, the union has resisted calls for more radical action. Part of this comes from the devastating memory of Ronald Reagan busting the air traffic controllers’ strike more than 30 years ago, which signaled a wider employer-led offensive against labor in the 1980s.

But another aspect of AFGE’s reluctance to push back harder comes from internal divisions. Federal unions include law enforcement elements, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, who outspokenly favored Trump in 2016 and actually supported the shutdown, despite also working without pay. Many federal employees, because of their proximity to the military industrial complex, tend to hold deep conservative beliefs, and union leadership has avoided challenging the backwards ideas of some members. As a result, some labor leaders saw a real risk that a large part of their membership would refuse to participate in a work stoppage or organized slow-down.

Labor militancy grows

But as the shutdown dragged into its fourth week with no end in sight, more militant voices in organized labor began proposing more drastic action. On January 20, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), Sara Nelson, issued a call for the labor movement to begin discussing a general strike in response to the government shutdown.

“There is a humanitarian crisis unfolding right now for our 800,000 federal sector sisters and brothers who are either locked out of work or forced to come to work without pay due to the government shutdown,” said Nelson at an award ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “We can end this shutdown together. Federal sector unions have their hands full caring for the 800,000 federal workers who are at the tip of the spear. Some would say the answer is for them to walk off the job. I say, ‘What are you willing to do? Their destiny is tied up with our destiny – and they don’t even have time to ask us for help.’”

Nelson ended her blistering remarks with a call for renewed militancy and solidarity. “What is the labor movement waiting for?” she asked. “Go back with the fierce urgency of now to talk with your locals and international unions about all workers joining together – to end this shutdown with a general strike.”

By January 25, the international president of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), Chris Shelton, pledged something similar. “CWA is ready to pursue every option available,” said Shelton in a press release, “up to and including participating in general strikes involving all working people if necessary: union members and non-union workers exercising their power to help end this damaging and dangerous shutdown.”

Withholding labor stops the shutdown

This growing militancy among many labor leaders set the stage for Trump’s retreat and the end of the shutdown. On January 25, federal workers officially missed their second paycheck since the shutdown began. That day, a critical number of air traffic controllers in Washington D.C. and Jacksonville, Florida called out sick, forcing the FAA to ground flights for 90 minutes. While an unknown number of controllers stayed home in Jacksonville, six of the 13 in the Washington D.C. facility, which handles one-fifth of U.S. commercial flight traffic, called in sick and could not be replaced.

While the air traffic controllers’ union leaders denied organizing a ‘sick-out’, the results proved the staggering power of workers withholding their labor. LaGuardia saw 47 cancelled flights and 580 delays, while Newark saw 40 cancellations and 300 delays. Kennedy Airport also saw 230 delays, and the combined effect was backlogged flights and chaos at airports across the country. It was the airline executives’ worst nightmare come true, which they expressed several times on conference calls with shareholders during the shutdown.

Hours later, the Trump administration bowed to pressure from congressional Republicans and business executives and agreed to end the shutdown. No $6 billion in funding for a wall. No increase in border security. Nothing. It marked the latest humiliating loss for the president, who had previously said he wouldn’t reopen the government without funding for a wall, and it was dealt out by workers.

Summing up the shutdown

Even as liberals tried to credit House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with ending the shutdown – or more ludicrously, the arrest of Trump associate Roger Stone earlier that morning – most media outlets couldn’t deny the decisive role played by labor. But what role was that?

The AFL-CIO put out a statement crediting workers for ending the shutdown, but it made no mention of the critical role of air traffic controllers withholding their labor. Instead, they credited “marching, rallying and protesting together.” That all happened, true, but it made no discernable impact on Trump’s calculus for 35 days. It’s an out-of-touch statement by more conservative labor leaders, like AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who have generally rejected the strike as a viable weapon for decades, putting their faith in lobbying teams and elections instead.

No one knows precisely the level of organization among those air traffic controllers who didn’t come to work on January 25. It could have occurred, as union leaders claimed, as an inevitable “symptom” of going weeks without pay. But the most important lesson for labor doesn’t require any intent on the part of the absent air traffic controllers: The working class has the power to shut down the country by withholding its labor.

The deal to reopen the federal government restores funding for three weeks, expiring again on February 15. Trump claims that without a $6 billion deal on his border wall, he will shut down the government again. Many federal workers expect this to happen again, and that could mean organized labor faces the same dilemma of the past 35 days.

It will take militant leadership, stronger organization and a recognition of the power held by the working class to beat back Trump’s attacks on labor. The strike is back on the table for hundreds of thousands of workers. Public school teachers in West Virginia, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Arizona and Los Angeles have struck in the last year, with many breaking the law to do it and winning their demands. Charter school teachers in Chicago made history by striking and winning a great contract late last year. Hotel workers have struck to improve industrywide conditions and win recognition.

The shutdown shows us that it’s time for labor’s leaders to embrace the strike and fight back. And if they won’t, it’s time for them to get out of the way of the rank-and-file leaders who will.

Dave Schneider is a union steward for the Teamsters and a rank-and-file UPS worker in Jacksonville, Florida.

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