As Trump’s partial government shutdown drags on with no end in sight, attention is beginning to shift from furloughed federal workers and unperformed tasks to “essential” federal employees who are being forced to work without pay. Their ranks swelled this week as the administration “recalled” an estimated 46,000 furloughed workers, the majority of them at the IRS, where the GOP’s precious tax cuts are being doled out via endangered refunds.
Many of the “essential” employees are at work on chores remote from the public eye, such as processing oil-drilling paperwork for the nation’s extremely vital fossil-fuel industry, already reeling from years of Democratic persecution. Even IRS staff are invisible to most taxpayers lucky enough to avoid audits or other enforcement actions. And so the most visible symbol of involuntary servitude during the shutdown has become the 51,000 employees of the Transportation Security Administration. For anyone who flies, they are essential employees indeed, and the rising number who are calling in sick to protest the situation have already caused serious airport delays.
The union representing TSA employees has gone to court to challenge the work-without-pay system, but a parallel petition by the union representing IRS employees was rejected earlier this week by a federal judge who warned of chaos if unpaid workers were allowed to go home until pay is appropriated. So each day that passes without progress toward a resolution of the stalemate in Washington increases the possibility of the previously unimaginable: a TSA strike.
This specter was raised publicly in a New York Times op-ed by Barbara Ehrenreich and Gary Stevenson, who noted the relatively low pay (a starting wage of $23,000) and high visibility of TSA agents, plus the possibility that they could build on last year’s wave of public-sector labor activism:
T. S.A. workers should use last year’s teachers’ strikes as a model. They were called not by the leadership of the teachers’ unions but by the rank and file. It was a new kind of labor activism, starting at the bottom and depending heavily on community support. By sticking together and creating their own communication system, the teachers succeeded in sending a powerful message of solidarity and strength.
But Ehrenreich and Stevenson also acknowledge a specter haunting the potential TSA strike that could shut down the nation’s airports:
In 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization struck over wages and working conditions, prompting President Ronald Reagan to fire 11,000 highly skilled workers, replacing them with military personnel. Patco was destroyed and unions in general retreated into a defensive crouch. Who wants to risk something like that again?
That’s a good question. Reagan’s decision to fight the illegal strike was risky and curtailed air travel for quite some time. But it worked wonders for him politically, as Joseph McCartin observed years later:
He showed federal workers and Soviet leaders alike how tough he could be. Although there were 39 illegal work stoppages against the federal government between 1962 and 1981, no significant federal job actions followed Reagan’s firing of the Patco strikers. His forceful handling of the walkout, meanwhile, impressed the Soviets, strengthening his hand in the talks he later pursued with Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Whatever it did or didn’t accomplish in concrete terms, the PATCO strike and its aftermath became a key part of the Reagan mythos and the enduring adulation he earned from conservatives. You could see how that example might be appealing to his current successor, who views himself as a world-historical figure fighting resolutely for America against a host of subversive forces.
So just to play this out, if TSA workers did go on strike, could Trump respond the way Reagan did? That’s unclear. On the one hand, there is no military equivalent to the armies of TSA screeners deployed at U.S. airports. On the other, screening is a vastly less complex process than air traffic control functions; presumably military personnel could be trained to take on screening responsibilities with reasonable dispatch.
The politics of breaking a TSA strike are not entirely clear, either. PATCO members struck over standard collective-bargaining issues like pay, benefits, and working conditions. The federal government has clearly breached its contract with TSA employees, and nobody supports the travesty of extended involuntary work without pay, even if pay is guaranteed (as it has been in legislation passed by Congress and signed by Trump) when the shutdown is finally resolved. In addition, Trump has the alternative remedy of simply letting the federal government reopen and continuing his fight with Democrats over his border-wall fetish without the hostages he’s chosen to take. And in the final analysis, Trump, the border wall, and the shutdown are all significantly less popular than Ronald Reagan was in 1981.
Still, one can imagine malevolent aides whispering in Trump’s ear that breaking a public employee strike could be a legacy-making “accomplishment,” much like it was for Reagan, and long before that, for Calvin Coolidge, whose successful battle against a Boston police strike in 1919 led to his vice-presidential nomination in 1920 and his ascension to the presidency on the death of Warren Harding.
Axios reported today that Trump is fond of citing boxer Mike Tyson’s dictum that “[e]verybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” He is contemptuous of the very idea of having a plan for the end of the government shutdown. A TSA strike might push him to an impulsive action a more prudent executive would avoid like the plague. But for unpaid workers and those spoiling for a definitive fight with Trump, it might be worth the risk to defy him.