Although some people believe that all politicians and parties are the same, anyone paying attention would notice radical differences. Bernie Sanders pulled no punches recently when he said, “We are living in a truly unprecedented moment in history, and the actions we take now, together, will determine not only the future of our country, but the entire world. Our people must stand together in the fight for economic, social, racial and environmental justice. The bad news is that we have a president who is a fraud, a pathological liar and a racist. The good news is that the American people are standing up, fighting back and are demanding fundamental changes in our economic and political system.”
President Trump shut down the government for 35 days, holding Congress and the country hostage, because he wants funding for a wall that is unnecessary and unsupported by the American public.
On Dec. 11, at a meeting with Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, President Donald Trump proclaimed, “If we don’t get what we want through you, through the military, or through anything you want to call [yes, he said this], I will shut down the government, and I will be proud to shut down the government for voter security because voters don’t want criminals and people with lots of problems pouring into our country.”
He continued, saying that he would “take the mantle,” as if he were doing something laudable. That’s the type of person we have as our president. Proud to blackmail the country to get his way and keep 800,000 federal workers struggling without paychecks.
As Bernie Sanders said, people are standing up to his bullying. On Jan. 23, hundreds of people gathered in the Hart Senate Office building, with 33 minutes of silence for the 33 days of the shutdown. This protest and others were supported by the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Federation of Federal Employees, the AFL-CIO, and many other unions including the Teamsters, the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, Unite Here and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In the Senate building, they held paper plates, saying, “We want paychecks, not food banks.”
The unions have also filed lawsuits to reopen government. This is the very reason far-right groups calling themselves “right-to-work patrons” have been spending millions trying to break up unions over the last year, telling public sector workers to quit in YouTube videos, Facebook ads, tweets, telephone calls, and door-to-door solicitations. With deceptive names like “The National Right to Work Foundation,” “The Fairness Center,” and “Freedom Foundation” that harken back to 1984 and Big Brother-ese, they are doing everything they can to destroy the collective bargaining that protects workers.
And where are these so-called patrons when public employees are fighting for the right for work with pay? Nowhere to be seen or heard from. The only rights they’re fighting for are the rights of millionaires and billionaires to pocket the additional $191 per worker per week that they’re saving by hiring non-union workers.
Last June, these groups bankrolled a lawsuit, Janus v. AFSCME, all the way up to the now ultra-conservative U.S. Supreme Court, and those one-percenters got what they paid for. The court majority overturned a 40-year-old precedent so public sector workers who chose not to join the union no longer had to pay a negotiating fee to cover the cost of collective bargaining and other union services even though federal law still requires unions to provide these services to non-members at organized workplaces. The bogus right-to-work groups thought the costs of representing non-paying workers in grievances would bury the unions, but they were wrong. Recognizing who fought for their rights, public sector union membership dipped only 0.5 percent last year, consistent with declines over the last decade and with declines in the private sector, which is unaffected by the Janus decision.
The National Treasury Employees Union and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association filed a suit together alleging that employees should not be forced to work without pay. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon ruled against them, said it would be “profoundly irresponsible” for him to issue an order that would result in thousands of federal employees staying home from work and not doing their jobs. “At best it would create chaos and confusion,” Leon said. “At worst it could be catastrophic . . . I’m not going to put people’s lives at risk.”
Then President Trump announced a temporary three-week end to the shutdown, claiming a victory in his inimitable way, using essentially the same approach he rejected at the end of December. He won nothing concrete (or steel) during the impasse and the U.S. economy lost $6 billion. He warned that he would shut down again on Feb. 15 if he didn’t get what he wanted from Congress and that he will declare a national emergency. However, he may not have the support he assumes. While Republican leaders in the Senate tried to whip up support, one senator after another expressed their concern about the effects on federal workers, saying they could not support another shutdown.
There is a precedent for workers winning. A suit after the 2013 shutdown argued that failing to pay federal workers on their regularly scheduled payday violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. The judge ordered the government to pay double the amount owed to 25,000 workers.
Some delicious reactions of solidarity were triggered by the shutdown. Canadian air traffic controllers in Edmonton, Canada, wanted to support their counterparts in Anchorage with whom they frequently communicate and “hand off planes.” They decided to send pizzas, and many others followed their example, with hundreds of pizzas crossing the border without the interference of walls. And what next? If you are frustrated or outraged, a website called Americans of Conscience offers a list of actions you can choose from each week to make your voice heard on a variety of topics with suggestions for scripts, strategies and people to contact. For example: If you believe that each citizen must be able to freely and fairly elect those who represent their values, there are suggested actions to bolster your state’s election security in advance of the 2020 elections. Go to americansofconscience.com for more.