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Why Unpaid Federal Workers Don't Just Strike During a Shutdown

TheAtlantic 2019-01-09 16:30:00

The unions are also holding rallies, highlighting the impact of the shutdown on federal workers who live paycheck to paycheck, and publicly urging Trump and congressional leaders to come to an agreement that reopens the government. That, however, is about as far as they’ll go to protest the shutdown.

Despite taking the government to court, neither union is encouraging its members to take part in any kind of work stoppage. “We encourage everyone who is being told to come to work to go to work,” Simon told me. “We are never going to advocate for something that’s illegal.”


As for reports of higher levels of sick calls by TSA agents, Simon said: “We aren’t coordinating that. We aren’t condoning that, and we don’t even really think it’s happening. We think it’s been greatly exaggerated in the press.”

Federal employees generally haven’t tested the prohibition on strikes since President Ronald Reagan famously fired more than 11,000 air-traffic controllers who refused his order to return to work during contract talks in 1981. The controllers walked out in demand of higher pay and a shorter workweek. Federal workers have never staged a mass walkout to protest the lack of pay during a shutdown. But even in that circumstance, the anti-strike law would probably hold up, said Zachary Henige, an attorney representing two federal employees in their lawsuit agains the government over the current shutdown.

The law “is going to prohibit these employees from striking,” Henegie said. “And I don’t think whether they’re being paid or not paid is going to impact that.”

“The statute doesn’t make a distinction about what they’re protesting,” he added.


A federal shutdown has never lasted more than three weeks, and Congress has always promptly approved retroactive pay for both furloughed employees and those who had to work through the impasse. “Even for shutdowns this length, they’ve been through it,” Erwin said.

But Trump’s threat to keep the government closed for “months or even years” could test the willingness of federal employees to remain on the job, especially as missed paychecks mount. “In theory,” Erwin said, “you’d have to say, How long can I keep working with no paycheck? It’s kind of unrealistic. At some point, there would have to be some kind of change to the status quo if this really is an unprecedented shutdown.

“I don’t know when that would be at this point,” he said.

The burden on corrections officers is particularly acute, Young said, because they are, along with TSA agents, among the lowest-paid federal employees still required to work. Federal prisons had been suffering from staffing shortages and budget cuts even before the shutdown. Many employees, he said, learned on Christmas Eve that their leave plans had been cancelled.

“You’re going to have a lot of people starting to call in because they don’t have gas money,” Young warned. “It’s going to be a real big problem in the near future if not right now.”

“Basically, they’re between a rock and a hard stone.”

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Russell Berman

is a staff writer at

The Atlantic

, where he covers politics.