The great labor historian Joseph McCartin, author of Collision Course, the best book about the air traffic controllers strike of 1981, is absolutely correct here. It may well be that the TSA and air traffic controllers are who might end the shutdown. Moreover, they have every right to take the actions needed to do it, whether technically legal or not.
This partial shutdown can continue only as long as hundreds of thousands of federal workers cooperate with it by working without pay, and often having to do more because many of their colleagues have been furloughed. What if the stress levels these workers are enduring began to sicken them in numbers large enough to impede an array of vital functions, including air travel? Would the Republican senators who approved funding for the affected departments in December—only to back away when President Trump abruptly decided to insist on funding for his border wall—continue to stand with the president as these functions ground to a halt? Or would they be secretly relieved to have to pass a bill over the president’s veto that would reopen government and get workers back on the job? No matter what they say in public, the latter scenario seems more likely.
Federal workers have no right to strike, and the last significant national collective action by a group of federal workers ended disastrously when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) defied the strike ban and walked off their jobs on August 3, 1981, only to be fired by President Ronald Reagan and permanently replaced. In part due to the painful legacy of PATCO, no union has breathed a word about collective action by federal workers to end the current impasse.
But a spontaneous sickout of federal workers in response to the present situation would present a different set of facts than obtained in 1981. First, no union would (or would need to) initiate or coordinate the action. Second, most Americans would understand why it had become intolerable for these employees to work under present conditions. Unlike the air traffic controllers, who were widely portrayed as having deserted highly paid jobs in order to pressure the government for even more money, employees who engaged in a sickout to protest their hostage status would be doing so as a last resort and demanding only that they not be deprived of their paychecks.
Sickouts have long played an important role in the history of public sector labor relations. Because most state governments, like the federal government, prohibit strikes, public workers of all sorts have repeatedly turned in the past to sickouts when no other means of protest was available. They became so common in the inflation-ravaged 1970s, when public workers saw their pay outstripped by the skyrocketing cost of living, that they acquired creative names: Policemen called them the “blue flu,” fire fighters the “red rash,” and teachers “chalk-dust fever.”
Indeed, years before their ill-fated 1981 walkout, air traffic controllers used sickouts in 1969 and 1970 to win important improvements from the Federal Aviation Administration, including the hiring of more controllers to alleviate the stressful workload in the nation’s control towers and centers. The editorial page of The New York Times worried in 1969 about the controllers’ efforts to “circumvent the strike ban” through the sickout tactic. But criticisms of the controllers were more than counterbalanced by the public’s realization of the difficulty of their situation. Those sickouts paved the way for PATCO’s formal recognition as the controllers’ union.
And while strikes are illegal, there are plenty of other alternatives to an official strike, as McCartin points out. Moreover, there is a huge difference between 1981 and 2019. In 1981, PATCO were jerks basically. They were making more money than the average workers at a time of deep economic problems and were engaging in labor actions because of things like not getting free tickets on international flights, not something likely to elicit sympathy. In 2019, who would blame them or TSA or anyone else to say that they aren’t going to work until the government pays them? Who doesn’t sympathize with them? Everyone except hard-core racists blames Trump for this shutdown. That political climate really matters. If I wasn’t getting paid, I wouldn’t show up for work.