The (temporary) end of the government shutdown has been celebrated, understandably, as a victory for working people. But for organized labor, this grim episode should be taken as a lesson on what we need to do differently next time.
Let’s review what just happened. As a result of petty, stupid, racist brinksmanship, the government was shut down for five weeks. Five weeks. Hundreds of thousands of government employees were not paid, and millions of private sector employees suffered severely from the ripple effects. Predictably, the system began to fall apart. More and more unpaid employees began calling in sick, or just quitting in order to seek paying jobs. This dynamic affected many agencies and industries, but was felt most immediately in aviation—an industry full of unionized public and private employees that is subject to breaking down if any single part of the work force stops working. Midway through the shutdown there were already serious delays at various airports due to low TSA staffing; by the final week of the shutdown, Sara Nelson, the head of the flight attendants union, was calling for a general strike; by the final day of the shutdown, a lack of adequate air traffic controllers made LaGuardia airport halt all flights. Trump’s decision to end the shutdown was reportedly finalized the night before the final crescendo of the full airport shutdown, but there is no question that the drumbeat of growing chaos within the aviation work force did contribute to the atmosphere of urgency that finally brought about the temporary end of the shutdown.
This is not an occasion for great celebration. Millions of working people were hurt by this shutdown. They were hurt more than necessary. And while the anger and frustration of those working people (and the decision of a portion of them to stop working) propelled much of the public opposition to what was happening, let’s also be clear about what we did not see during this five week period when people were working without pay: An organized strike, general or otherwise. There are understandable reasons for that—public unions are barred by law from striking, and everyone seems to have been caught off guard by how long the shutdown dragged on—but organized labor must take this experience as a lesson. This is not the time to sit around patting ourselves on the back. It doesn’t have to happen like this again.
Everyone knows that this shutdown was a farce, created and perpetuated by an idiot. Lawmakers may outlaw shutdowns altogether in response. Then again, they may not. And in just a couple of weeks, when this temporary truce expires, we could find ourselves in another shutdown. What should labor do then?
The private unions in aviation should plan to walk out on the first day of the shutdown. Airline pilots and flight attendants and others who rely on the safety of a system staffed in part by unpaid government employees have issued dire warnings about the most recent shutdown’s effect on safety. They should not be forced into that position again. As soon as the government shuts down and the TSA officers stop getting paid, the private aviation unions should stop working. They should do this in the name of safety, and they should also do it because (while it is not easy) it is easier for them to do it than it is for their government-employed brethren. A work stoppage by these private aviation unions would halt flights, and cause an immediate crisis, which would in turn cause a fast end to the shutdown. In fact, if lawmakers know that this will be the response to a government shutdown, they will not shut down the government. That is how powerful the threat of an organized labor stoppage at this economic choke point is. That is labor power in action.
Walk on day one. On day one. Make the plan now.
The federal employee unions are not legally allowed to strike. But that doesn’t mean that their hands are tied. Make a plan for a concerted work slowdown. Put it in a drawer. Most importantly, start organizing and training and rallying the tens of thousands of low-paid government employees who may be wondering if their unions have any power. No one can blame individual TSA workers, for example, for not walking off the job. But if their union had trained them in advance on how to slow down their work in response to a shutdown—given the safety issues it raises, among other things—they could be an important part of an organized labor response to a shutdown, rather than just the shutdown’s victims. That goes too for unionized workers at agencies across the federal government. (IRS workers may suddenly find it very, very time-consuming to process a single tax return.) Work slowdowns, mass sickouts, and other tactics can add pressure similar to strikes without being formal strikes. Like strikes, these things take a lot of organizing in advance. The time to start organizing and planning for this is now. Unions will most certainly find enthusiasm for these things in the ranks of members who were just screwed out of their paychecks for five fucking weeks.
Donald Trump is not going to pull a Ronald Reagan and fire thousands of government workers who stop working if the reason they have stopped working is that they’re not getting paid. Donald Trump and his shutdown are far more unpopular than the workers are. That equals leverage for bold union actions. Furthermore, America needs a functioning aviation system, all the time. Stopping flights for a single day amounts to a serious crisis. Everyone knows these workers have power. The private unions should exercise that power freely. The government unions should have a plan for exercising it as well, even if they need to be a little more creative about it. “No work without pay” is a floor-level standard that organized labor should be prepared to uphold. Americans of all political persuasions will support that principle.
Like Sara Nelson, I’d love to see a general strike. But we are not prepared for a general strike yet. Fortunately, ending the next shutdown won’t take a general strike. It will only take a single, well-organized work stoppage in a vital industry. And that power is already in union hands, if they are prepared to use it.
On day one.