Donald Trump recently suggested that he has the upper hand in the government shutdown fight because “most of the people not getting paid are Democrats.” By this, the president meant that his party depends less on the support of federal workers than Chuck Schumer’s does, and that Democrats will therefore have a harder time standing their ground during a prolonged shutdown than he will.
Beyond the moral odiousness of this position, there was one strategic flaw in Trump’s reasoning: Precisely because they’re aligned with Democratic Party, public-sector unions are likely to be more willing to engage in work stoppages under a GOP president than they might be under a pro-labor one.
Two weeks into the shutdown, formal labor militancy has yet to materialize. But an informal pseudo-strike is already taking shape at America’s major airports.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents are legally obligated to work through the shutdown, even though their pay has been frozen. For TSA agents who survive paycheck to paycheck, that just stopped being workable. As the shutdown approaches its third week, hundreds of agents have begun calling in sick. As CNN reports:
The mass call outs could inevitably mean air travel is less secure, especially as the shutdown enters its second week with no clear end to the political stalemate in sight.
“This will definitely affect the flying public who we (are) sworn to protect,” Hydrick Thomas, president of the national TSA employee union, told CNN.
At New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, as many as 170 TSA employees have called out each day this week, Thomas tells CNN. Officers from a morning shift were required to work extra hours to cover the gaps.
Call outs have increased by 200%-300% at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where typically 25 to 30 TSA employees call out from an average shift according to a local TSA official familiar with the situation.
According to the union, most workers are not calling out as a means of protest, but rather as a way to save money on child care or generate income from second jobs. Still, the union expects the ranks of the “sick” to expand as the shutdown continues. As a result, major American airports are preparing to relax security measures to prevent lines from becoming unmanageable long.
For the moment, this disruption is (at least, officially) the product of individual workers doing what they can to make ends meet. But as worker frustration (and desperation) grows, there’s a risk that collective action could replace individual improvisation. And if federal workers start “bringing the shutdown home” to ordinary Americans, Trump’s opposition to restoring funding to parts of the government that have nothing to do with immigration could become untenable fast.