What the Government Shutdown Told Us About Worker Power

Negin Owliaei Researcher, Institute for Policy Studies

Do we have your attention now, Leader McConnell?” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, posedthis question after shutdown-related staffing shortages at the Federal Aviation Administration all but halted air traffic in the Northeast. The longest-running federal government shutdown came to an end just hours later, fittingly brought to an end by government workers, the people most impacted by the ordeal.

Nelson made waves among the labor community at an AFL-CIO awards ceremony earlier in January when she called for a general strike in support of furloughed workers. “Federal sector unions have their hands full caring for the 800,000 federal workers who are at the tip of the spear,” Nelson said. “Some would say the answer is for them to walk off the job. I say, what are you willing to do?”

The solidarity from flight attendants was all the more remarkable given that they’re private sector employees. Though they might have received their paychecks throughout the shutdown, Nelson pointed out that they depended on the public sector workers that make up the backbone of aviation safety. “Our country doesn’t run without the federal workers who make it run,” Nelson told Slate, “and there’s no industry where that’s more evident than the airline industry, where our private airlines work in tandem with the federal agencies.”

As labor historian Joseph McCartin wrote in the American Prospect, the ghosts of 1980s labor history haunted federal workers throughout the shutdown. McCartin literally wrote the book on a devastating moment for the American labor movement — the air traffic controller strike of 1981, when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization defied a federal strike ban, only to see its members summarily fired by President Ronald Reagan. Surely it’s no accident that the Trump administration admitted Reagan into the Labor Department’s hall of fame.

McCartin, and many others, suggested federal workers stage mass sickouts as an alternative form of protest in response to Trump’s worker hostage situation. On the day they missed their second paycheck, workers did just that. The F.A.A. cited “a slight increase in sick leave” as the reason why they rerouted flights across the Eastern seaboard. 

So what ultimately protected the air traffic controllers who called in sick last month? McCartin attributes it to public opinion. The 1981 strike took place during the rise of Reaganomics. The latest sickout, McCartin pointed out in the Washington Post, ended a wildly unpopular shutdown and followed a string of successful labor actions.

Ending the shutdown was an important display of worker power. There’s still quite a bit to be done — hundreds of thousands of federal contractors still need to receive back pay and Trump continues to threaten to hold workers hostage while small-government lackeys watch with glee. But the end of the shutdown may also be another signal that one of the most debilitating chapters of American labor history has closed.

Surely the air safety personnel had been watching the mass movement of teachers striking for more pay and better classroom conditions — demands that benefit both the workers and their communities. Perhaps they’d also witnessed the recent success of the largest hotel strike in U.S. history, where Marriott workers won pay raises as well as additional safeguards against sexual assault.

Maybe the New York safety officers were looking closer to home, where workers also pushed back against Trump’s anti-immigrant policies with strikes. The New York Taxi Workers Association came through with one of the earliest high-profile displays of worker resistance shortly after the Trump administration announced his Muslim ban. Airports were again a site of worker struggle as cab drivers refused to pick up passengers at New York’s JFK airport for one hour. 

The taxi strike also offered naysayers a chance to see the penalties for opposing worker actions. When ride-sharing company Uber, then headed by then-Trump adviser Travis Kalanick (a lot has changed for Kalanick over the past two years), lifted surge pricing at JFK around the time of the strike, passengers revolted, making #DeleteUber trend almost immediately.

It’s no surprise that the shutdown ended thanks to the actions of workers. They’ve been on the front lines of the fight against Donald Trump’s agenda from the earliest days of his presidency. 

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Reposted from Inequality.org

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work