Most media outlets continue to portray the federal “shutdown” as a political fight between a president who once said he would be proud to provoke a standoff and congressional leaders who have called the bully’s bluff. And it is that. But the story of President Trump facing off against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just scrapes the surface of what is really going on.
The real story is one that most media outlets have a hard time telling, because they have, for so long, neglected the labor beats that were once a mainstay of every newsroom.
This is a story of workers being abused, and of their unions struggling to resist that abuse. It ought to be understood as such. And from that understanding should extend a more accurate and illustrative language. The government is not shut down, at least not entirely. But hundreds of thousands of federal workers are locked out.
Using terms from the labor lexicon, such as “lockout,” gives Americans a clear picture of what is happening to federal workers. It also rejects the clinical language of standard “shutdown” reporting, which denies the urgency of the moment.
It is technically true, as CNBC recently reported, that: “An estimated 800,000 government employees have been caught in the political crossfire of the shutdown, now in its fifth week. Roughly 380,000 federal workers have been furloughed and 420,000 are working without pay.”
But let’s be precise: The 380,000 “furloughed” workers have been locked out of their jobs. Worse yet, the 420,000 employees who are “working without pay” are being exploited by an employer that has signaled that if they do not show up and do their jobs without pay, they could lose those jobs. That’s coercion.
As the crisis drags on, union leaders, lawyers, and workers have begun to bluntly address the reality of a labor struggle in which workers are being abused. This is a time for the blunt language and tactics of labor unions engaged in a struggle to end the exploitation of workers.
“Let’s call this shutdown what it is: It’s a Lockout,” says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr. says this “effort at extortion is more of a lockout than a shutdown. But maybe an even more accurate description of this is that it’s a shakedown.”
Michael Kator, an attorney for a group of employees of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Transportation Department and the Agriculture Department, says of his clients: “They’re required to work without being paid—that is the essence of involuntary servitude. The government has absolutely violated famous constitutional rights.”
Judges and commentators can debate about specific legal terms for what’s being done to federal workers. But the fact that hundreds of thousands of them are locked out is beyond debate. So, too, is the fact that they are experiencing coercion and what can only be described as a “shakedown.”
Using true terms tells a truer story. That, in turn, helps Americans to focus on facts that matter more than presidential tweets.
The bland, familiar language of “shutdown” coverage fails to capture the crisis into which federal workers and their families have been thrust. An entire sector of the country’s workforce is being abused in plain sight. This is an urgent circumstance where workers are being denied regular paychecks. They are promised that they will eventually be compensated, but in the meantime they face the threat of losing their homes, their vehicles, their credit ratings, and their ability to feed their children.
The human toll is severe. And, as workers are harmed, threats to federal priorities and public safety arise—as members of the FBI Agents Association explained in a recent petition, “financial security is a matter of national security.”
The FBI Agents Association, with a membership that includes more than 14,000 active and former special agents of the FBI, is one of the many groups representing a diverse federal workforce. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) are two of the largest, but thousands of workers are represented by unions groups that range from the National Weather Service Employees Organization to the Laborers and the Machinists union—with which the National Federation of Federal Employees, representing 110,000 blue- and white-collar federal workers, is affiliated.
These unions operate in an economic sector where it is illegal to strike, despite the fact that, as Barbara Ehrenreich and veteran labor organizer Gary Stevenson noted last week in a New York Times op-ed, “The moral foundation for a strike is unquestionably firm,” because “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.”
But the unions have the power to bring their protests to the corridors of power, as they did Wednesday, when American Federation of Government Employees President Cox and his members occupied a portion of the Hart Senate Office Building for 33 minutes—one minute to mark every day that government workers have been disregarded and disrespected by a vindictive president and his political cronies. Specifically, they were demanding that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell schedule a vote on “a clean appropriations bill to re-open the federal government immediately.” Broadly, they were demanding an end to the “use of federal workers as pawns in the political fight” that has produced a lockout and a shakedown.