What the Government Shutdown Told Us About Worker Power

Negin Owliaei Researcher, Institute for Policy Studies

Do we have your attention now, Leader McConnell?” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, posedthis question after shutdown-related staffing shortages at the Federal Aviation Administration all but halted air traffic in the Northeast. The longest-running federal government shutdown came to an end just hours later, fittingly brought to an end by government workers, the people most impacted by the ordeal.

Nelson made waves among the labor community at an AFL-CIO awards ceremony earlier in January when she called for a general strike in support of furloughed workers. “Federal sector unions have their hands full caring for the 800,000 federal workers who are at the tip of the spear,” Nelson said. “Some would say the answer is for them to walk off the job. I say, what are you willing to do?”

The solidarity from flight attendants was all the more remarkable given that they’re private sector employees. Though they might have received their paychecks throughout the shutdown, Nelson pointed out that they depended on the public sector workers that make up the backbone of aviation safety. “Our country doesn’t run without the federal workers who make it run,” Nelson told Slate, “and there’s no industry where that’s more evident than the airline industry, where our private airlines work in tandem with the federal agencies.”

As labor historian Joseph McCartin wrote in the American Prospect, the ghosts of 1980s labor history haunted federal workers throughout the shutdown. McCartin literally wrote the book on a devastating moment for the American labor movement — the air traffic controller strike of 1981, when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization defied a federal strike ban, only to see its members summarily fired by President Ronald Reagan. Surely it’s no accident that the Trump administration admitted Reagan into the Labor Department’s hall of fame.

McCartin, and many others, suggested federal workers stage mass sickouts as an alternative form of protest in response to Trump’s worker hostage situation. On the day they missed their second paycheck, workers did just that. The F.A.A. cited “a slight increase in sick leave” as the reason why they rerouted flights across the Eastern seaboard. 

So what ultimately protected the air traffic controllers who called in sick last month? McCartin attributes it to public opinion. The 1981 strike took place during the rise of Reaganomics. The latest sickout, McCartin pointed out in the Washington Post, ended a wildly unpopular shutdown and followed a string of successful labor actions.

Ending the shutdown was an important display of worker power. There’s still quite a bit to be done — hundreds of thousands of federal contractors still need to receive back pay and Trump continues to threaten to hold workers hostage while small-government lackeys watch with glee. But the end of the shutdown may also be another signal that one of the most debilitating chapters of American labor history has closed.

Surely the air safety personnel had been watching the mass movement of teachers striking for more pay and better classroom conditions — demands that benefit both the workers and their communities. Perhaps they’d also witnessed the recent success of the largest hotel strike in U.S. history, where Marriott workers won pay raises as well as additional safeguards against sexual assault.

Maybe the New York safety officers were looking closer to home, where workers also pushed back against Trump’s anti-immigrant policies with strikes. The New York Taxi Workers Association came through with one of the earliest high-profile displays of worker resistance shortly after the Trump administration announced his Muslim ban. Airports were again a site of worker struggle as cab drivers refused to pick up passengers at New York’s JFK airport for one hour. 

The taxi strike also offered naysayers a chance to see the penalties for opposing worker actions. When ride-sharing company Uber, then headed by then-Trump adviser Travis Kalanick (a lot has changed for Kalanick over the past two years), lifted surge pricing at JFK around the time of the strike, passengers revolted, making #DeleteUber trend almost immediately.

It’s no surprise that the shutdown ended thanks to the actions of workers. They’ve been on the front lines of the fight against Donald Trump’s agenda from the earliest days of his presidency. 

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Reposted from Inequality.org

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Uber Drivers Deserve Legal Rights and Protections

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

In an advisory memo released May 14, the U.S. labor board general counsel’s office stated that Uber drivers are not employees for the purposes of federal labor laws.

Their stance holds that workers for companies like Uber are not included in federal protections for workplace organizing activities, which means the labor board is effectively denying Uber drivers the benefits of forming or joining unions.

Simply stating that Uber drivers are just gig workers does not suddenly undo the unjust working conditions that all workers potentially face, such as wage theft, dangerous working conditions and  job insecurity. These challenges are ever-present, only now Uber drivers are facing them without the protection or resources they deserve. 

The labor board’s May statement even seems to contradict an Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that couriers for Postmates, a job very similar to Uber drivers’, are legal employees.

However, the Department of Labor has now stated that such gig workers are simply independent contractors, meaning that they are not entitled to minimum wages or overtime pay.

While being unable to unionize limits these workers’ ability to fight for improved pay and working conditions, independent contractors can still make strides forward by organizing, explained executive director of New York Taxi Workers Alliance Bhairavi Desai.

“We can’t depend solely on the law or the courts to stop worker exploitation. We can only rely on the steadfast militancy of workers who are rising up everywhere,” Desai said in a statement. 

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