January 25 – As we go to press, President Trump’s has been forced to retreat from his demand that the Democrats agree to fund a border wall as the price for reopening the government.
But while the Democrats refused, under pressure from their base, to cave to this demand, they were in no way prepared to mobilize the forces needed to win this fight.
It took working class action to force Trump’s hand. As the weeks of the shutdown dragged on it became clear that the airports and air traffic system were reaching the breaking point because of the huge pressures on federal employees including TSA workers and the air traffic controllers, all of whom were required to work without pay. Already call outs from TSA workers had forced the temporary closure of terminals at some airports.
This morning it was announced that LaGuardia airport in New York was being temporarily shut and that other airports might be shut because air traffic controllers were not coming into work in sufficient numbers. This was not an official strike but the Air Traffic Controllers Association did make clear it supported their members. Their president Paul Rinaldi declared, “Controllers are stressed; they’re worried; they’re tired; they’re distracted. And they’re not going to come to work if they’re not fit for duty.” While the FAA authorities were able to scramble and get the system back up in a few hours, the message had been sent.
There was enormous sympathy from other airport and airline workers. When the airports appeared to be starting to shut down, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 50,000 flight attendants in 20 airlines, (who a couple weeks earlier called for a general strike) urged her members to go to the offices of their congressional representatives until the shutdown was resolved, declaring, “We’re mobilizing immediately.” When asked if this meant that flight attendants would not be going to work, she responded, “Showing up to work for what? If air traffic controllers can’t do their jobs, we can’t do ours.”
Literally within hours, the shutdown was over with Trump saying that he would sign legislation to reopen the government with no money for the wall. But this is a temporary three-week reopening with negotiations on “border security.” While Trump threatened to shut down the government again at the end of three weeks if he doesn’t get agreement on money for a wall, it is very hard to see how triggering another shutdown would be a sustainable political position. Nevertheless, unions should continue mobilizing and making it clear that another shutdown will be met with more decisive action. This position would have massive popular support.
What Socialists Said About the Shutdown
While the whiff of working-class action played a crucial role in ending the government shutdown, it was also clear that the shutdown was having increasingly dire effects and huge pressure was mounting to bring it to an end. Millions of working people were affected, including the 800,000 federal employees who were not receiving a paycheck as well as the hundreds of thousands of contract workers who not only were not being paid but will receive no back pay. If the shutdown had continued, tens of millions of people faced losing SNAP food benefits. There were increasing warnings that the shutdown could be the trigger for a recession.
Socialist Alternative completely rejected Trump’s racist campaign for a wall, premised on an invasion of “criminals” and “terrorists” causing a national security crisis. We pointed out that:
“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.”
We called on the labor movement to organize mass demonstrations to support federal workers around the demands to end the shutdown and “No Unpaid Work.” We pointed toward workplace action especially at the airports which are key to the functioning of the U.S. economy.
As the shutdown dragged on, Trump was losing the argument in the court of public opinion. Over the past two years there was growing support in the Republican base for the wall demand. But the recent midterm election in which Trump’s main theme was the “national emergency” allegedly being caused by the immigrant caravan from Central America led to a major defeat for the Republicans.
During the shutdown, Trump and his super-rich cabinet ministers made one tone deaf statement after another showing how out of touch they are with the reality faced by federal workers who were lining up in ever greater numbers at food banks around the country.
Trump’s disapproval ratings have reached a record level, up to 58% in one poll, with even many supporters of the wall questioning whether the shutdown was justified. At the same time, the hard right will no doubt scream betrayal at Trump’s climbdown; this will deepen the crisis facing Trump.
Seize the Momentum
Trump has suffered a major blow but it is entirely possible that the Democrats will help him out by making a rotten deal, giving him more money for “border security” which Trump can present as a step toward the wall in exchange for removing the threat of deportation for Dreamer youth in the DACA program.
Meanwhile Trump’s other difficulties are mounting with increasingly problematic revelations from the Mueller and other investigations. The Democrats will now be able to use their control of the House of Representatives to begin even more investigations of Trump and his associates.
It is significant that the Democratic leadership, including Pelosi, is no longer categorically rejecting the idea of starting impeachment proceedings as they did before. Rather they are saying they will wait to see what Mueller’s report says and whether it provides clear evidence of obstruction of justice and “collusion” with Putin.
We are for impeaching Trump for his real crimes. Undoubtedly he is a deeply corrupt individual with relationships with various unsavory elements including Russian “oligarchs.” But for us the key issue is absolutely not Russia nor its interference in the 2016 election which did not fundamentally affect the outcome.
Trump’s real crimes include but are not limited to: seeking to exacerbate racial division and giving aid and comfort to white nationalists; seeking to end a woman’s right to choose by packing the Supreme Court with hard right ideologues; demonizing immigrants; separating children from parents at the border and confining them indefinitely; and willful environmental destruction on behalf of the billionaires as we face climate catastrophe.
One certainly can’t exclude that the Democrats may find themselves forced to go further than they intended against Trump. But the key lesson of the end of the shutdown is that if we want to defeat Trump, fight the agenda of the right and win key gains like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, we can in no way rely on the Democrats. Defeating the right requires a mass movement of all those targeted by the reactionaries, centered on the enormous social power of the U.S. working class. This is the power which the entire capitalist establishment fears.
This power was also on display in Los Angeles where the six-day teachers’ strike ended in a limited but important victory. Likewise there have been important union organizing drives in the airports and other workplaces in the recent period. The inspiring stand of air traffic controllers can give a boost to these organizing drives pointing to further struggles ahead. Trump being pushed back is a real victory: we must seize the momentum and go on the offensive!