Hey Trump, don’t hold us hostage for the racist wall

December 19, 2018

A member of the American Federation of Government Employees has a message about the looming federal shutdown for the Trump administration and Democrats in Congress.

JUST IN time for the holidays, we federal employees face the uncertainty of a furlough as Donald Trump tries to cram $5 billion in funding for his racist U.S.-Mexico border wall into the federal budget.

As of now, the Tangerine Tantrum is ready to partially shut down the government at midnight on December 22 if Congress doesn’t give him all the funding on his Christmas wish list.

A shutdown would mean that 380,000 federal employees — made up of permanent employees, contract employees and grant workers — would be furloughed. Another 420,000 would be forced to work without pay.

And while federal employees have usually received back pay after past shutdowns, those checks, coming in January or February 2019, would be too late to stop the immediate pain.

As American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement, “Our members take home an average of around $500 each week. Any interruption in their pay will have a devastating impact on them, their families, and their communities.”

AFGE members go #RedForFeds in Washington, D.C., to protest Trump’s union-busting.
AFGE members go #RedForFeds in Washington, D.C., to protest Trump’s union-busting. (AFGE)

If Trump’s call to shut down the government sounds familiar, it is because we’ve witnessed this brinksmanship before. Trump has threatened a federal closure regularly when the deadlines for appropriations bills or the expiration of continuing resolutions approach.

As Cox said in response to Trump’s bluster last year, “Using American civil servants as a bargaining chip illustrates that President Trump’s priorities are not to take care of the American people.”

Not only is Trump displaying contempt for federal employees and their families, never mind the “American people” to whom we provide vital services, but this shutdown is entirely about heaping more abuse on the vulnerable with his racist wall.

In a now-notorious December 11 meeting with Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Trump said he would be “proud” to close the federal government if he doesn’t get his way. “I’ll be the one to shut it down,” he told Pelosi and Schumer. “I will take the mantle. And I will shut it down for border security.”

PRESIDENT TRUMP when you decide to lock my co-workers and me out of our workplaces, you do so in the name of your own agenda. Your racist wall makes no one secure.

Trump’s diatribes hide the fact that he and the congressional Democratic leadership agree on most aspects U.S. border policy. This allows the Democrats to pose as allies of federal employees, while ignoring the racist elephant in the room: that both main parties have supported drastically increased measures at the border since long before Trump.

“[Trump’s] taking full responsibility for the Trump shutdown,” Pelosi commented after the meeting. “Perhaps he doesn’t understand people need their paychecks. Maybe that’s not the life he leads. It’s not enough to say we’ll pay you in January when people have to make ends meet in December.”

Federal workers should remember that this “friend of labor” has held a seat in Congress for more than 30 years. Pelosi and Schumer have been in both the majority and the minority for a long period in which our wages have declined, our health care premiums have increased and more — and they often voted in favor of budgets that hurt our living standards.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the Democrats “reinvented government,” which is double-talk for reducing the federal workforce by 377,000 positions between 1992 and 2000.

Perhaps more disgusting is the fact that Pelosi and Schumer never call out Trump’s anti-immigrant assumptions when he demands his border wall — because the Democratic Party shares that racist outlook.

Shamefully, Pelosi, Schumer and the Democrats have already agreed to the original amount that the White House asked for in June: $1.6 billion to fund border security in fiscal year 2019.

But following the typical “can’t take yes for an answer” pattern that has emerged in recent decades, as soon as the Democrats rolled over and agreed with Republicans, the Republicans cried foul and move the goalposts.

The Democrats aren’t any less racist on immigration and border control — they only cost less. Don’t forget that the warehousing of migrant children in detention centers, which earned Trump an extra measure of scorn in the summer, began during the Obama presidency. And with every compromise, they enable the Republicans to move politics to the right.

If Pelosi and Schumer want to make a racist deal with Trump that “only” includes $1.6 billion in border security, they shouldn’t be allowed to compromise in the name of protecting the paychecks of federal workers. That is not a check I would want to cash.

ANTI-IMMIGRANT measures are bipartisan policy in the U.S. Capitol. But federal workers have noting to gain in this racist compromise. What we need is a clarion call for cross-border solidarity.

I was thrilled to read the inspiring “Call to Organized Labor” from the Sanctuary Caravan. But I as I scanned the list of endorsing unions, I was disappointed, though not surprised, to find that AFGE has not, as of this writing, endorsed the call. And it does not seem likely that my union will.

Over the past two years AFGE has been a source of inspiration for its members. In the spring and summer, the union took to both the courts and the streets, successfully stopping Trump’s executive orders (EOs) designed to limit the rights of federal employee unions.

In a show of solidarity with the teachers’ strikes last spring, AFGE launched a #RedForFeds campaign, with more than 2,000 federal employees rallying in Washington on July 25.

AFGE took a stance against the growth of the far right in the Trump era, with President Cox putting out a moving statement after the murder of anti-racist activist Heather Heyer in Charlottesville:

White supremacy, Nazism and demonstrations steeped in hatred go against everything that we believe at the American Federation of Government Employees. Unions are about strength in numbers and standing up for all workers, regardless of their race, color, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or political views. As one of the most diverse unions in the country that represents workers from all walks of life and various backgrounds, we are infuriated by what occurred this weekend.

AFGE continued to speak out about the rise of racist vandalism at federal monuments and harassment of federal employees by Klan-sympathizing bosses.

Sadly, however, AFGE leadership has yet to call out the racism of Trump and the Democrats on immigration and border policies.

Cox’s letters to the House and Senate protesting a possible shutdown focus only on the adverse economic impact on federal employees and the loss of services to the public.

While they recognize that a Trump-forced closure is all about the $5 billion for the border wall — and that there is a growing opposition to U.S. immigration policy, including among federal workers — AFGE leaders refuses to connect anti-immigrant racism to the broader rise of the right that the union has condemned.

Thus, in the letters to the two houses of Congress, Cox wrote: “I urge you to resist efforts by those who would use a government shutdown as leverage to pass divisive, unpopular legislation. Shutting down the government should not be the way we resolve disputes over controversial policies.”

President Cox, the border wall is not just divisive or controversial. It is racist, and AFGE should not be silent on that racism.

AFGE LEADERS obviously feel some pressure from their more right-wing member councils and locals to walk a narrow path on the border wall and immigration policy.

AFGE is the union that, among other federal employees, represents workers and officers in the Department of Homeland Security, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol. The National Border Patrol Council and National ICE Council, both AFGE affiliates, endorsed Trump for president in 2016.

But I can tell you from conversations in my workplace that NBPC and NIC do not speak for all federal employees. Far from it.

We are disgusted by the separation of families at the border, angered at the growth of the white supremacist right and fed up with our livelihoods being used as political poker chips.

AFGE has made strong statements against the growing racist threat, such as: “These incidents are increasing in frequency and show no signs of going away, the union is now doubling down, calling on the administration to distance itself from white nationalism, anti-Semitism and all types of prejudicial extremism, and condemn these acts.”

But if these are going to be more than posturing, AFGE must break its silence and call out the racism of Trump’s border wall.

The federal workforce is racially and culturally diverse, in part due to equal employment opportunity laws. Our workplaces and unions routinely celebrate not only African American History Month, but Asian-American, Native American and LGBTQ history months.

The seeds of solidarity and anti-racism exist in the federal workforce. Our union leadership could build on those — but not if it stays silent about the racism of border wall or the actions of small sections of the federal government, such as ICE, or the right-wing unions representing those employees.

In a nation of immigrants, migration should not be seen as a crime. Our union should take up the slogan: “La lucha obrera no tiene frontera.” (“The working class struggle has no borders”)

When I talk to my co-workers about the border wall and a possible shutdown, my response will be: “No racist wall! No racist compromise! No silence on racism!”

Further Reading

From the archives