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Federal Workers Without Pay: Mass Action Needed to End Shutdown

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“This really does have a higher purpose than next week’s pay,” proclaimed Trump when asked if there would be a safety net for the 800,000 federal employees now entering their third week without pay. “If you ever really looked at those people, I think they would say, ‘Mr. President, keep going.’”

TSA workers, hundreds of whom have called out sick in protest of the shutdown and to find other work, and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee union in the country currently suing Trump over the shutdown, seem to disagree.

Rebecca Maclean, who works for the federal agency Housing and Urban Development said in an interview with CNN, “I’m worried every day about how much food I have in my house and whether or not I can make next month’s bills if this drags on for a while.” Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, hundreds of Trump’s senior political appointees are about to get raises of $10,000 a year.

The Shutdown and the Wall

Begun on December 22, this shutdown, the third of 2018, is over $5.7 billion that Trump is demanding to begin building his infamous “border wall,” claiming it’s the only solution to the “national security crisis” we are facing. Reflecting the racist fear mongering behind this claim, Fox’s Ainsley Earhardt remarked on live TV about the shutdown, “It is an inconvenience, yes…” but “you deserve to be able to go to sleep at night and not have to worry about being killed by an illegal immigrant.”

In the face of astronomic health care costs, $1.5 trillion in total student debt, low wages, and exorbitant housing costs in the big cities – daily concerns for many working-class people – being murdered by somebody who is statistically no more likely to commit murder than anybody else is hardly the biggest “security” concern for working people and their families. But this is exactly why anti-immigrant fear mongering is used by right-wing capitalist politicians. It attempts to turn people’s anger away from our real security concerns of unaffordable housing, education, health care, etc. – all problems caused by capitalism and the greedy billionaire class – and toward a false scapegoat, in this case the myth of a wave of violent illegal immigrants.

From Trump’s point of view he is playing with fire. He sees it as a political necessity for his 2020 campaign to follow through on his promise for the wall, but outside his most loyal far right section of supporters, the shutdown is not massively popular and could spur a fightback. Polls suggest that more people blame Trump for it than Congress.


On Monday, this became the second longest government shutdown in US history, now longer than the one in 2013. According to AFGE, the federal government has still not paid its employees back-pay for that shutdown! If still going on by January 12, this shutdown will become the longest in U.S. history, and on January 15 workers will get their first $0 paycheck. For workers making $500 a week, the average salary of an AFGE member, missing a paycheck is not just an “inconvenience” as Fox’s Earhardt suggests. For many it is the difference between making rent or not making rent, full meals or partial meals, medication or no medication. Federal workers have been using the hashtag #ShutdownStories on social media to shed light on how the shutdown is affecting them.

Trump and Fox aren’t the only ones making out of touch comments about federal employees working without pay. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the government agency that oversees the government’s civilian workforce, in a tweet last week advised federal employees to barter with their landlord for rent. The tweet contained a sample letter-to-your-landlord offering “the possibility of trading my services to perform maintenance (e.g. painting, carpentry work) in exchange for partial rent payments.” The tone deaf OPM tweet then concluded, “If you need legal advice, please consult your personal attorney.” As if workers who can’t afford rent will be able to afford a personal attorney. Now, backtracking, the OPM are saying the sample letter was posted accidentally. This doesn’t change the fact that they thought it was appropriate to write in the first place. To add insult to injury, Trump recently signed an executive order freezing the pay of federal workers in 2019, ie cancelling any wage increases!

Workplace Action Brewing in the Airports

Out of 2.1 million federal workers, 800,000 are not receiving a paycheck. 380,000 of these workers are furloughed, while 420,000 are being forced to work without pay, including 55,000 TSA agents who screen 800 million passengers per year.

On Friday, news broke that hundreds of TSA agents have been calling out sick at several major airports across the country. That day 150 agents called out from JFK Airport in New York and 75 from Dallas-Fort Worth (where the number is usually 25 according to a local TSA official). TSA workers aren’t alone in calling out at the airports either, with reports of Air Traffic Controllers, whose 30 year low staffing level is even further exacerbated by the shutdown, calling out sick as well. January 15, the day of the first missed paycheck if the shutdown continues, is being pointed to as the potential breaking point for many airport workers.

TSA union leaders in AFGE have explained the call-outs are not part of an organized action but are due to workers legitimately needing to call out in order to find other work that actually pays. If the shutdown continues, there is potential for call-outs to grow as a form of unofficial protest driven by the anger of the rank and file. This would pose more sharply the potential for coordinated workplaces actions on a larger, even national scale, especially if a bold lead is given by the union leaders.

With Trump now threatening an indefinite shutdown, more coordinated workplace protests by workers and their unions would be completely justified, including strike action. For example, a well-prepared one-day strike by tens of thousands of federal employees working without pay would send a powerful warning to Trump and the Republicans, especially if linked to escalating protests and workplace action. This is especially true in the airports where action by TSA workers could have a massive effect on a key artery of the economy. Meetings of workers in all affected workplaces could be organized right away to discuss how to fight back and to begin to organize for action. Mass demonstrations outside airports or federal buildings could be organized to coincide with workplace action to mobilize the broader anger at Trump in U.S. society.

Unfortunately, the union leaders do not have this sort of fighting strategy, although rank-and-file action from below could push them to take bolder initiative. AFGE, along with AFSCME (the largest non-federal public sector union), are currently suing Trump for not paying federal workers, but this is inadequate. It is true that the infamous Muslim Ban that Trump tried to enact two years ago was formally blocked in the courts, but massive protests across the country were also crucial, including occupations at key major airports. On its own, a court appeal will not end this shutdown, and certainly not quickly. Workplace action and mass protest are the key ingredients to a strategy to end the shutdown.

End the Shutdown and No Compromise on the Wall

If workers do take action, it’s extremely important that all working people support them. The unions should make it absolutely clear that they will not accept ending the shutdown in exchange for building the wall. A connection could also be made that the $5.7 billion Trump wants for the wall could instead be spent on raises for federal workers, jobs, health care, or education.

The “months or even years” that Trump has said the shutdown could last for is clearly not an option for federal workers. Nor is it likely to happen given the enormous economic dislocation it would cause. Trump is now threatening to invoke emergency powers to build the wall while allowing the rest of the government to reopen.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party leadership’s only tactic so far has been to meet with Trump behind closed doors and then tell the media, not incorrectly, how unreasonable he is being. But this is no strategy to end the shutdown and certainly not to end it quickly. Since when have Trump and the Republicans responded to reason?

Given the Democrats’ recent record on Trump’s shutdowns there is a real danger they will cave and give Trump partial or full funding for the wall in exchange for ending the shutdown. In January 2018, the Democrats shut down the government in an attempt to reverse Trump’s repeal of DACA, the program that allows young immigrants to stay in the U.S. During the negotiations during that shutdown, the Democrats offered $25 billion for Trump’s wall in exchange for protecting Dreamers, but Trump rejected it! Pelosi and Schumer are entirely capable of making such a rotten deal again.

Workers have the power to defeat Trump and his shutdown with coordinated workplace action and mass protests but the Democratic Party leadership cannot be relied on to put forward the bold lead that is needed. Instead, we need bold action from below to demand the union leaders help mobilize the full power of the labor movement, the anti-Trump movement and all working people to end this shutdown.

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