One of the most interesting aspects of the December federal shutdown is that Trump was unapologetic in identifying that it was his intent to bring it about. Normally the president or Congress will trade blame in anticipation of the shutdown but not in this case. That Trump now blames the Democrats is irrelevant and transparent. He made it clear on national television that he was going to shut down the government unless he got his toy — excuse me, his wall.
We have been through shutdowns before. They are not fun, particularly for federal workers and federal contract employees. While federal workers eventually get paid, when it comes to contract employees, there is no guarantee that they will see a dime.
So the government shuts down, even partially, and many of the rest of us who are not employed by the federal government shake our heads and express frustration, but then go on with the rest of our lives. Federal workers and contract employees don’t have it so easy.
Which is why the unions that represent federal workers need to do more to make shutdowns and furloughs other than an afterthought. Yes, they must keep their members informed about developments on Capitol Hill; yes, they must encourage their members to call their Congressional representatives and the White House; but at the end of the day, is that it?
One of the central challenges for unions representing federal sector workers is the same for all public sector workers: they have not linked their issues sufficiently with the issues and the concerns of the people that they serve. Let me give you an example. The political right loves to attack what they allege to be bloated government, but if you were to ask any regular person whether they want funds cut that go into inspecting foods, they would look at your cross-eyed.
If you were to suggest to someone boarding an airplane that funds should be cut from air traffic control, they would probably want to throw you out of the plane. In other words, when it comes to the specific things that are offered by government, there are normally not significant objections. Yet, the political right is allowed, time and again, to trash government and government workers as if they are all sitting on their rears smoking cigars.
This is precisely the time to remind the public of the role of government workers and to also remind the public of the damage that Trump is doing in order to secure his “toy.” But to remind the public means to be in the streets, visiting organizations and visiting elected political representatives. It means demonstrating and staying in the public eye. It means taking advantage of radio talk shows as well as social media. It means creating a situation which is anything but normal.
That is what federal labor unions need to be doing at this moment. And doing so with all deliberate speed.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is the former president of TransAfrica Forum and a longtime trade unionist. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.