No paychecks, no peace

January 21, 2019

A federal worker writes from Washington, D.C., as Trump’s lockout drags on.

CHANTING “NO paychecks, no peace!” a few hundred federal workers and union activists marched past the White House on January 19 on our way to join the Women’s March.

The anti-shutdown march began with a rally at the AFL-CIO headquarters as the Trump shutdown enters it fifth week. “Sisters and brothers, let’s call this shutdown what it is: a lockout!” shouted AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler to the hundreds who gathered in front of the building.

Federal workers, locked out or working without pay, represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and other unions, were joined in solidarity by members and activists from the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), National Nurses United (NNU), Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) and a dozen more unions.

Many of the other union activists were in Washington, D.C., for the 2019 AFL-CIO Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference. Rally speakers drew connections between civil rights, women’s rights and the federal workers impacted by the shutdown.

Federal workers protest against Trump’s government shutdown
Federal workers protest against Trump’s government shutdown (AFGE | flickr)

The AFL-CIO, AFGE and other unions are offering assistance to federal workers and compiling web pages with resources for those needing help.

But federal workers and contract employees also need to look for other solutions for bringing this shutdown to an end. This may include more direct action, in the spirit of the Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.

Transportation Security Administration airport screeners, working without pay, have been calling out sick in growing numbers. Could this be organized into a coordinated “sick-out”?

THE CONNECTIONS among Black, Brown and women federal workers are being put in a spotlight as the shutdown drags on, because these groups of federal workers are the hardest hit economically.

If you remember back to Trump’s racist speech from the Oval Office on January 8, he lied that “all Americans are hurt by uncontrolled, illegal migration...It strains public resources and drives down jobs and wages. Among those hardest hit are African Americans and Hispanic Americans.”

Actually, federal workers from these groups are feeling the pain from Trump’s shutdown, not from immigration. In 2017, 43.4 percent of the federal workforce was female, 18.2 percent African American, and 8.8 percent Latinx, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Tryshanda T. Moton, area vice president for Goddard Engineers, Scientists and Technicians Association (GESTA), of IFPTE Local 29 at NASA, made the connections to King and told some heartrending stories about her federal co-workers who struggle to get by.

Moton’s stories brought many at the rally to tears. One co-worker had to cancel her doctor-ordered cancer radiation treatments for January and February because of the shutdown. While this sister was told in December that her cancer had gone into remission, the treatments are necessary to finish off any lingering cancerous cells. As Moton said:

She had to cancel those [appointments], because she can’t make the co-insurance right now because of the furlough. She was expecting to have her paycheck to support those medial payments. And it’s really hard for her because she says “I can’t even talk to anybody because it’s hard for me to wake up every day. I’m really stressed out.” And she says, “I’m now worried that the stress is going to cause my cancer to come back.”

Moton also talked about the absurd situations that women federal workers are being put in by the shutdown:

Another co-worker of mine just yesterday said that she was called back to work. She is a single mother, and she has childcare payments at the Goddard [Space Flight Center] daycare center. They have clause in their policy where parents have to continue to pay [childcare fees] during the furlough because that’s how they keep their teachers paid.

Due to the shutdown, Goddard daycare is closed down, despite the fact that parents continue to pay daycare fees for services they aren’t receiving. And now, this federal working mother will be called back to work without pay — and be forced to pay for alternative childcare services, while the Goddard childcare remains shuttered, as Moton explained:

She has to pay twice as much for another daycare while she is still paying for the Goddard daycare. How can she afford to pay for daycare times two, maybe times three, because the private daycare is going to cost twice as much as what she is paying at Goddard? Now she has got to deal with the fact that she has to find somewhere to put her kid and she also has to go back to work for no pay, because she has now been classified as “essential.”

AFRICAN AMERICAN federal workers are also disproportionally impacted by the shutdown over Trump’s racist wall. Some 18.2 percent of federal workers are Black, a greater percentage than the number of Blacks in the U.S. population as a whole, according to 2017 estimates.

And in the states nearest the White House, African Americans are even more heavily represented in the federal workforce, where there is a major concentration of federal offices and federal contractors. In Washington, D.C., Blacks make up 37.2 percent of the labor force; in Maryland, 29.3 percent; and in Virginia, 18.8 percent.

How did African Americans end up in federal jobs in such high numbers? Discrimination in private employment.

As the Guardian reported, “Following the legislative civil rights gains of the 1960s, government agencies, especially federal, generally held themselves more stringently to anti-discrimination laws than private employers of the era.”

“My mom works for the government, and my dad worked for the government,” furloughed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employee Kenneth Graves told the Guardian. “That’s what we always heard growing up — get a good government job.”

Now, these African American federal workers are finding it hard to survive the shutdown. Graves said that that his savings might hold out until mid-February, and that he is looking for part-time retail work in the meantime.

Laura, a National Park Service employee, said she had suffered through a few shutdowns at this point in her federal career. She told an NPR reporter that her mom called to say: “There’s a bed here if you need to come.” Laura said: I’m fifty years old, I’m not about to go live with my mother.’”

As for Latinx federal workers and their families, many share the circumstances of Ray Alcala, one of many federal workers posting their stories under Twitter’s #ShutdownStories hashtag or putting up GoFundMe pages to help make ends meet. In one Twitter post, Alcala, who says he is down to his last $11, said that he “applied for unemployment, but that office said it can take 6-8 weeks to process my application.”

Federal contract employees are also struggling. Julie Burr, who works for the Department of Transportation in Kansas City, told CNN that she set up a GoFundMe page hoping to cover two months of paychecks, or $5000. At of this writing, generous workers had donated more than $12,000.

WHILE I’M one of the federal employees who continues to work and get paid, some of the federal and contract workers in my building haven’t been so lucky. In the building cafeteria, staffed by a mostly female, mostly Black and Latina contract workforce, many food stations were empty the other morning. As many as 50 percent of the contract workers are laid off.

Those who are working are worried that they may be next — or they just received their layoff notices.

One cashier was telling another that their employer said she could use sick pay or vacation pay to cover the paychecks she wouldn’t receive. Her friend looked at her co-worker, me and the others in line, and said: “It sucks having to use up your vacation or sick time to make up your paycheck.”

So why are federal workers — especially women, Black, and Brown workers — so hard hit by the shutdown? Why are federal workers seeking out charities and going to food pantries to feed their families?

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, federal workers earn 32 percent less than equivalent private-sector employees. AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. points out that members of his union take home an average of around $500 a week, so the interruption in their pay has a “devastating impact.”

Though Trump signed legislation on January 16 approving back pay for furloughed federal workers, that won’t help them meet pressing immediate needs or hold off creditors, as Trump also threatens that the shutdown could go on months or years.

We will require a great deal more solidarity and action from working federal workers and our allies in public-sector and private-sector jobs to defeat the Trump lockout. But the labor movement has historically been built on just this kind of solidarity.

As we chanted while marching past the White House: “Stop the shutdown, stop the wall! All for one and one for all!”

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