WASHINGTON - Some labor advocates are urging the U.S. federal workforce to call in sick — en masse — to force an end to the ongoing government shutdown.
“It would be about getting public attention, and even more important, causing the government to focus on this problem. And hopefully, to delink the payment of wages to federal workers from the dispute that exists over the border,” said Professor Joseph McCartin, director of the Kalmanovitz Institute for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University in Washington.
Since December, about 25 percent of the federal government has been shut down because of a seemingly intractable budget dispute over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the Mexico border.
Congressional Democrats oppose the wall and have refused to negotiate this issue until the government is reopened. It is now the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
About half of the 800,000 federal workers affected by the shutdown have been designated “essential” and are required to perform vital government operations without pay. Included are thousands of federal law enforcement agents, prison guards, tax collection officials, Customs and Border security agents, firefighters, and the Coast Guard.
The other half has been furloughed, forced to stay home until a government funding bill is passed.
Trump has signed legislation promising back pay to all federal workers affected by the shutdown, but the ongoing delay is creating increasing financial hardship for many.
Federal law prohibits government workers from participating in a mass work stoppage or labor strikes.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired thousands of air traffic controllers who walked off the job demanding better pay and working conditions.
Unable to strike, labor unions that represent many of the U.S. government’s 2.1 million employees, are organizing rallies across the country to generate public support and pressure lawmakers to end the shutdown or face retribution in the 2020 election.
“Voting really does matter, because in the upcoming election, we are going to remember who voted in our favor,” said Francis Nichols, vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ Local 1456 chapter in Washington.
Public sector unions are traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party, and it is unclear what influence these demonstrations will have on Republicans in Congress. Also, some union leaders representing the Border Patrol recently voiced support for Trump’s border wall demand to end the shutdown.
The unions have also sued the government on the grounds that unpaid work violates labor laws and the Constitution. So far, the courts have declined to insert themselves in what the Justice Department argues is a political dispute between Congress and the president.
Unions have not endorsed a massive sickout strategy that might cripple government functions and put employees at risk of being fired.
However, at the Transportation Security Administration, the absentee rate among essential personnel, which include 50,000 airport security screeners, has risen to 10 percent.
The increased absenteeism is seen as driven mostly by financial needs, with many workers seeking alternative jobs to pay for their families’ basic needs. The reduced staffing has caused longer-than-usual delays at some airports and forced the closure of some security checkpoints.
“Sooner or later, you are not going to have to have a mass sickout. Sooner or later, people aren’t going to have money to put gas in their cars to literally drive to work,” said Matthew Biggs, secretary-treasurer of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents thousands of federal workers.
Some labor supporters like McCartin argue that as this shutdown continues, unions need to develop more disruptive strategies, such as a sudden mass sickout to force congressional action.
“They need to have mobilization plans of their members, short of a strike, which actually can bring some pressure to bear. Not just hoping that public opinion changes by showing workers suffering or having to visit food banks, but having some other mechanism to bring some pressure to bear to protect these workers,” McCartin said.
Barbara Ehrenreich, founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and Gary Stevenson, a former labor organizer, have gone even further and have called upon federal workers to go on strike, even if it puts their jobs at risk.
“The federal government has broken its contract with its employees, locking some of them out of their workplaces and expecting others to work for the mere promise of eventual pay,” they wrote recently in The New York Times.