Will labor learn the lessons of the shutdown?

February 4, 2019

A federal worker answers our questions about the Trump’s last federal shutdown, the looming threat of one to come and the strategies unions can use in the next round.

IN THE end, it was labor that killed the shutdown.

As Socialist Worker wrote in an editorial, “[I]t took federal workers beginning to snarl traffic at major U.S. airports before [Trump] and the Republicans, without really admitting it, backed down and allowed the federal government to be reopened.”

However, in his January 25 Rose Garden surrender, Trump spent only two minutes announcing the end of the shutdown, and the next 15 minutes ranting about the need for a border wall or “barrier.” In that tirade, Trump threatened federal workers with another government shutdown on February 15, if Congress doesn’t vote for $5.7 billion in funding for his racist border wall.

Federal workers rally against the shutdown in Washington, D.C.
Federal workers rally against the shutdown in Washington, D.C. (AFGE | flickr)

In the face of this renewed threat, federal workers, federal unions and the labor movement should take a moment to reassess our strategies for resisting the shutdown. We need to ask — and answer — some vital questions.

IF AVIATION workers stopped the shutdown with a “sick-out,” could we have stopped the shutdown sooner?

YES, WE could have. The combined power of federal workers withholding their labor and private-sector workers calling for a safety strike brought Trump to his knees after 35 days, and there is no doubt that with better organization, we could have done so sooner.

As was widely reported, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport security screeners, members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), were among the 420,000 federal workers required to work for those 35 days without getting paid.

The low-paid screeners, many living paycheck to paycheck, quickly ran out of funds to even buy gas or pay train fare to get to work, and began calling out sick in increasing numbers. On some days over the five-week shutdown, TSA agent absences ran up to 10 percent.

On top of delays, flying became less safe, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) furloughing 4,000 safety inspectors, represented by the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union, during the first three weeks of the lockout.

Airline passenger and crew safety concerns led Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson to call for the labor movement “to end this shutdown with a general strike,” as she accepted the 2019 AFL-CIO MLK Drum Major for Justice Award.

Then, on Friday morning, January 25, air traffic controller absences at FAA facilities in Washington, D.C., and Jacksonville, Florida, caused a ground stop at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and delays up and down the East Coast. Air traffic controllers have been represented by National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) since 1987.

Within hours on Friday, the shutdown — and the lockout of federal employees — was over.

Given the combined power of public-sector and private-sector aviation workers that seems to have come together without coordination, imagine how much sooner we could have stopped the shutdown if we had organized together.

For example, while it is illegal for federal workers to strike or take a coordinated action against the government, a more widespread and covertly organized sick-out could have forced the shutdown crisis sooner.

Or what if federal employee unions had organized more informational pickets by furloughed workers at airports to communicate to passengers about safety concerns and the need for solidarity with those forced to work without pay? The union that represents aviation safety inspectors did do such pickets at 50-plus airports, and they gained some media attention.

This would have meant federal workers’ unions devoting funds to chartering buses, providing furloughed workers transit passes, providing lunch, etc.

By engaging the furloughed workers in actions, unions could have harnessed their frustration and anger to help to shorten the shutdown — and give workers a sense of their collective power at a time many were feeling individually powerless.

Since federal employees work so closely with private-sector unionized workers in some industries, there is a tremendous opportunity for collaboration and solidarity. We need to harness that potential to stop future attacks on either group of workers.

IF THE Democrats in Congress weren’t able to stop the shutdown, why should we continue to rely so heavily on them?

THE FACT is that Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell did nothing to end the shutdown. But that didn’t stop the Democrats from sponsoring anti-shutdown rallies or hogging platforms to tell us about the brave stands they were taking in Congress. Each event turned into a 2020 election campaign stop for the Democrats.

As if federal workers could wait out a shutdown for that long.

It is time that unions, especially federal employee unions, stop allowing the Democrats to treat them like campaign-funding ATMs. And when the Democrats tell us they are the natural friends of federal workers, we have to call out their lies.

We must never ignore the fact that the Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute (FSLMRS) of 1978, which made it illegal for federal workers to bargain over wages and working conditions, or to strike, was passed by Democratic majorities in the Senate and House, and signed by President Jimmy Carter.

And it has been more than 25 years since Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore “reinvented government” and eliminated more than 377,000 federal workers, so that they could show themselves to be tough on waste and appeal to the Republican right.

That might be easy to forget since it was a generation ago. But it was only 2011, 2012, and 2013 when Democratic President Barack Obama eliminated pay raises for federal employees, after bailing out the Wall Street banksters.

No Democratic administration, despite regular promises to labor, has moved a finger to overturn the Taft-Hartley Act that restricts all the most effective labor movement tactics. Why? Because as loyal servants to the profit system, Democrats voted for Taft-Hartley and continue to support it.

Even if working people continue to vote for left-wing Democrats, we need to stop expecting the Democratic Party to be our savior. They do not share our interests and will use our demands to score political points when it suits them, as during an unpopular government shutdown by a hated Republican egomaniac.

We need to use our own power: the power of union members as workers, like the Los Angeles teachers, to win our demands.

HOW COULD federal unions have made better use of the energy and solidarity of the 60 percent of federal workers who were working and getting paid?

ONE OF the great untapped resources of this shutdown was the 60 percent of us federal workers who continued to work. While we were occasionally asked to come out to a rally, we were often passive spectators. Federal employee unions did not take this opportunity to build solidarity and power at work, and that was a missed opportunity.

Even before our co-workers missed their first paycheck on January 11, unions posted web pages of advice, including where to find food banks or how to set up a GoFundMe account. This left most unpaid feds to try individual solutions, rather than organizing a collective effort to ease suffering of the working class.

In the last week of the shutdown, the executive committee of my AFGE local voted to create an “Emergency Grocery Grant” fund. We later found out that union bylaws do not allow for this kind of action.

With another potential shutdown looming and back pay just starting to be collected, we should be changing the bylaws to allow for member relief. We should start signing members up now, and ask those not impacted by the shutdown to make donations.

Another missed opportunity was a lack of pickets and protests at partially opened agencies. Our unions could have organized “Bring My Co-workers Back!” rallies at lunchtime across the country. These would have mobilized those of us still working in support of our locked-out sisters and brothers.

Such workplace rallies could also have featured our furloughed sisters and brothers telling their shutdown stories. They would have gone a long way to building workplace solidarity. Our sisters and brothers needed to know they weren’t forgotten in this shutdown.

Our unions could also have partnered with many food banks serving feds and turned food distribution into organizing opportunities — as well as removing some of the stigma some feds felt about asking for help. One furloughed coworker told me, “I didn’t go to a nearby food bank because I was embarrassed. My neighbor, who’s a volunteer there, brought me a bag of food from the food bank, and I was so grateful.”

Federal unions could have organized working and furloughed federal employees to help pass out food, signed people up for rally and picket duty, or even held rallies before or after food distribution hours.

One food bank featured in many D.C.-area stories was World Central Kitchen. WCK’s pop-up food bank was located at the Navy Memorial at 700 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, in sight of the Trump International Hotel and a short march to the Capitol or to the White House.

It would have made a great opportunity for those of us still working to come out and show our support and solidarity with our sisters and brothers.

HOW CAN we build solidarity with, and protect the livelihoods, of often low-paid federal contract employees?

CONTRACT WORKERS do jobs that for the most part used to be federal jobs — maintenance, cleaning, cafeteria work and security, but also programming, human resources and research — but have been contracted out over the decades. These folks often earn less and have fewer benefits than federal workers.

Contracting out federal work actually costs taxpayers twice as much as if these workers were feds. But most federal contract workers don’t see this difference in their paychecks. The difference between what is billed for the work and what is paid to the worker is the profit that contracting firms, known around D.C. as “Beltway Bandits,” rake in, laughing all the way to the bank.

Many contract workers won’t get back pay for the shutdown unless we fight for it. Our unions and federal employees should demand that Trump and the Congress make all contract workers whole by providing back pay.

And we should go a step further. We should make it a key demand that Trump and Congress cover all fees and penalties that contract and federal workers were charged by creditors and landlords who weren’t willing to “work things out” as Trump recommended, or allow them to defer rent by doing “carpentry or painting” as the Office of Personnel Management suggested.

Federal employees and federal contract workers have a common cause and potential combined power. Labor needs to harness that power to prevent future shutdowns and suffering.

WHAT DO other public-sector strikes have to teach us?

THE SUCCESSFUL public-sector strikes of the past year have been an inspiration to many federal workers and federal unions.

The #RedForEd teachers’ strike wave that began in West Virginia had an obvious impact on federal unions fighting against Trump’s executive orders trying to limit our collective bargaining rights.

The AFGE launched a #RedForFeds campaign, with more than 2,000 federal employees rallying in Washington on July 25. And in August, Trump’s orders were overturned in court.

Teachers again went on strike in December 2018 in Chicago and January 2019 in Los Angeles, winning important victories.

In Chicago, the Acero charter-school teachers, members of United Educators for Justice, won smaller class sizes and a pay increase. More recently in LA, members of United Teachers of Los Angeles won increased education funding and smaller class sizes. Both actions saw militant pickets, large well-organized rallies and examples of solidarity.

We also have our own past struggles to learn from. Of course, since it is illegal for federal employees to strike, we have to be serious and seriously well organized to take that step.

The Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute (FSLMRS) of 1978 was pushed by Democratic President Jimmy Carter and passed by Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House. While the FSLMRS wrote federal collective bargaining into law, it took away the rights of federal employees to bargain over wages and working conditions and made it illegal for federal workers to take “concerted action” — meaning strike.

Ronald Reagan was more than happy to take that gift from Carter and bust the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) when they struck in 1981. Reagan fired 13,000 federal employees, and banned them from ever working from the federal government again. Reagan, Carter and the Washington political establishment needed to make an example of PATCO, because PATCO was a union with a history of fighting for its demands.

Another important federal struggle was the postal workers’ wildcat strike of 1970. Members of the National Association of Letter Carriers went out on an unauthorized strike for better pay. Many postal workers were on food stamps and other relief because their pay was so low. Despite the fact that Richard Nixon called in the National Guard and the Army, the letter carriers held strong for eight days, winning improved wages and conditions.

Public-sector unions — and if not the unions, then public-sector workers themselves, including federal workers — need to get creative and find ways to harness our energy and power if we are going to win our demands and stop politicians from using us as bargaining chips and hostages to racist policies.

WHAT ABOUT the wall and the anti-immigrant racism it represents?

TRUMP’S BORDER wall is all about racist, anti-immigrant, fearmongering.

Trump said the shutdown was about the wall. The Democrats said it was, too. When we talked about the shutdown at my workplace, we said the shutdown was about the wall. And if the shutdown was about the wall, then it was about racism.

So it was a little incongruous to hear AFGE President J. David Cox say: “This is not about a wall, this is about 800,000 real people with real families and real bills to pay.”

The shutdown was definitely about 800,000 federal employees and many more contract employees made to suffer. But they were made to suffer for Trump’s racist wall. On that, we must be clear.

Federal unions should have pushed back hard against the racism of the wall, especially given how diverse the federal workforce is. And the federal contract workforce is even more diverse, with many more Latinx workers, working alongside Black and Anglo workers.

Of course, there were certain federal employee union locals that backed Trump and his racist wall, including the National Border Patrol Council and National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, both AFGE affiliates. That certainly put AFGE’s Cox in a bind.

But a key principle of the labor movement is “an injury to one is an injury to all.” That means when racist politicians like Trump use racist scapegoating against immigrants for political gain, and to divide workers from each other, the labor movement has a duty to call out racism and fight it head on.

That may mean having tough conversations with co-workers who hold racist ideas. That may even mean parting ways with openly racist unions.

If labor leaders sidestep difficult questions about anti-immigrant racism because they don’t want to offend certain union members, how can we count on them to put up a fight against anti-Black racism from our bosses and managers in our workplaces? Or stand up for women’s rights and a workplace free from sexual harassment? Or fight back against any other oppression we encounter at work that attempts to divide and weaken us?

The labor movement can’t afford to be led by pandering to the most right-leaning workers. Immigrant workers are our allies in the battle for justice in the workplace. They are our sisters and brothers. Our strength is in our numbers and our solidarity.

With another shutdown bring threatened, federal workers, their unions and their allies need to start planning now. We need to take the lessons from our struggles, as well as those from other workers. We need to build solidarity and put strategies in place that can prevent or shorten any future shutdown.

And those strategies need be centered around our collective power.

Further Reading

From the archives