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General Strikes and the Shutdown

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With Sara Nelson, head of the flight attendants union, calling earlier this week for a general strike to end the shutdown, I have a piece in The Atlantic discussing the history of general strikes in the U.S. and the challenges and potential of such an action. The important part:

So Nelson’s call is remarkable not just because general strikes have been so rare, but also because she offered it to a room full of labor leaders—precisely the audience that’s often been most skeptical of the general strike as a tactic.

And yet, her call reflects the strong turn toward community-based unionism in recent years. Rising income inequality, declining union rates, stagnant incomes, high student-debt loads, and an increasingly dysfunctional political system have made previously middle-class jobs all too precarious. A major reason for the success of the teachers’ strikes of the past year is that they are fighting for their communities as well as themselves. By demanding librarians and nurses in the schools, smaller class sizes, and enough money so they can sleep instead of working a second job, teachers have made the case that they are fighting for quality public education, which connects with the needs of children and the hopes of parents.

A general strike to demand the reopening of the government so federal workers will get paid would similarly emphasize the needs of communities. Demanding higher wages and better benefits could divide these workers from average Americans, but nearly everyone wants the government to open and federal workers to receive paychecks. Fully staffed airports and functioning national parks are not controversial goals, even if the tactics to achieve them might be.

Nelson is not arguing that government workers themselves should engage in a strike without support from private-sector unions. The workers she represents labor for the airlines, not the government. Labor law has declared sympathy strikes largely illegal, which helps explain the lack of general strikes since 1946, but the National Labor Relations Act allows for strikes when workers face extremely dangerous conditions, which the airline unions are already claiming have resulted from the shutdown. Even so, it is illegal for federal workers to strike, but that has not always stopped them. In the 1970s, there were dozens of federal workers’ strikes, kicked off by the postal workers’ strike in 1970, which won significant concessions from the Nixon administration. That era ended abruptly when Ronald Reagan fired the air-traffic controllers during their 1981 strike.

But Trump now faces a very different landscape than Reagan did in 1981. The Reagan-era Federal Aviation Administration had prepared for the possibility of an air-traffic controllers’ strike for years, and had contingency plans on how to deal with it. The Trump administration, by contrast, is completely unprepared to replace the controllers, TSA screeners, and other federal workers who keep air travel functioning. The air-traffic controllers had alienated both the general public and other unions in the decade before their fateful strike through their robust demands and actions that repeatedly disrupted air travel. But federal workers today are not asking for large wage gains or other new benefits. They just want the government to open so they can pay for rent and food. Because of this, they would likely enjoy much more widespread public sympathy.

It may well take the direct action of federal workers to end the government shutdown. Ultimately, they cannot continue to work without pay. Any federal strike, of course, poses a very real risk to workers’ future employment. But with the president indifferent to the suffering of workers in the face of his desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, something has to give. Soon federal workers will face little choice but to take action, whether by quitting or taking matters into their own hands on the job.

I am not overly optimistic about such an action, more from a logistical than an ideological standpoint. I remain pretty skeptical that other unions would really follow the flight attendants on here, yet it is indeed notable that the airline unions are all using the precise language that would legally justify a strike while they are under contract. And as I point out, while we absolutely cannot hand wave away the legal implications to anyone involved, politically I think they are on really strong ground, which in the end is probably more important. Our valued commenter and the dean of public sector strike history Joseph Slater is somewhat more pessimistic than I in this piece, or perhaps realistic is the better word, which is understandable and should also be considered. But hey, if a union president is talking about this seriously and publicly, something pretty interesting is happening.

Speaking of strike related matters, I was on The Interchange, on WFHB, the other day talking about my book. We focused primarily on 4 of the 10 strikes: the slave general strike, Flint, PATCO (air traffic controllers), and Justice for Janitors, so it might be of interest to you.

I’m also going to be speaking in St. Paul, Minnesota on February 21 if any one wants to brave the cold.

….And, here we go with workers taking matters into their own hands on the shutdown!!

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