With 800,000 federal workers in lines at food banks, calling in sick and looking for other jobs during the longest government shutdown in history, some labor leaders are calling for a bold measure to end the impasse: a mass strike by aviation workers, crippling the movement of travelers and goods, that would force the warring sides to sit down and reopen the government.
Unions representing air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants this week released a grim assessment of the air travel situation. “In our risk-averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented,” wrote the unions.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, has explicitly called for a general strike to end the shutdown. “If there were a time for the labor movement to speak up, the time is now. The time for action is now,” Nelson told CBS News.
Can federal workers strike?
One major reason there hasn’t been a strike during the shutdown is that the law clearly forbids federal workers from striking–unlike their private-sector counterparts.
“They cannot legally strike. That’s a firm position in federal law and I think all the union leaders understand that,” Joseph McCartin, a professor at Georgetown University specializing in U.S. labor relations, told CBS News of the air traffic controllers.
That law has been on the books since the 1970s The last time federal workers struck was in 1981, when 11,000 air traffic controllers walked off the job to demand better pay and working conditions. The backlash was severe; then-President Ronald Reagan fired the controllers and their union, Patco, was dissolved.
Unlike in 1981, when most of the public supported Reagan’s action, public opinion this time is much more divided. A majority of Americans say they have been personally affected by the shutdown, and 70 percent say the issue of a border wall is not worth a shutdown.
The circumstances are different enough this time around that today’s workers who’ve not been paid can expect more public sympathy than striking workers in 1981, some labor advocates say.
“Even more than the law, what allowed Reagan to fire the controllers successfully was that the public backed him,” McCartin said. “If President Trump tried to do the same thing today, with circumstances that are really radically different …. I’m not sure the public would want to back the type of action that Ronald Reagan took.”
Short of a strike, there are other actions workers can take that would send a message — and affect how government works.
“Federal employees work within the rules, but when they want to protest, they all of a sudden stop doing things efficiently,” said Dan Meyer, a partner at law firm Tully Rinckey and a former federal investigator. “Law enforcement is notorious for this.”
They can also sue—as a number of federal workers’ unions are currently doing. Lawyers representing workers in one case note that, while the law prevents “essential” workers from walking off the job, it also prevents the government from forcing them to work without pay.