The Cost of Trump's Lockout

by Bryan Conlon

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As a general rule, organizers on staff like myself should, when discussing something that affects the membership of the union they work for, emphasize the stories of members and not speak for them. After all, it’s the members’ union and the members’ lives benefited or harmed by a given situation, and no staffer can speak as eloquently or as forcefully on behalf of someone as they can for themselves.

So I am not going to write about the government shutdown today in terms of human impacts on the members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the National Treasury Employees Union, and other federal workers. I will not be talking about the hundreds of thousands of people being forced to do without paychecks at the caprice of a spoiled rich boy who has never had to work a day in his life. I will not be talking about the necessary government functions being ceased because workers have been furloughed as ‘non-essential’, like safety inspection for passenger airplanes. I won’t even be talking about the pain and misery radiating outward from the shutdown into millions of families in every state and every county, hurting indigenous communities and threatening those living in Section 8 housing with eviction. And even more agony is on the way as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program runs out of money and 38 million people can no longer afford food to live.

I am not writing about these human impacts not because they are unimportant, but because I genuinely do not know how to convey the full scope and scale of how vile this shutdown is in the space given to me on this email. I don’t know how to distill all of the pain and hurt and fear into a thousand words. I don’t know if anyone can do that. So instead, the impossibility of resolving this godawful mess through business as usual.

The fact is that the Trump administration, like the Republicans in 2013, don’t want most of the workers furloughed to go back to work. The chaos they’re creating right now isn’t a byproduct of a deliberate policy choice, it is the deliberate policy choice. It is the same plan of attack undertaken in every other major effort to privatize or cut government services: starve a given government service of resources, precipitate a crisis, and drastically restructure the targeted parts of the government. Most recently in the federal sector, AFGE’s seen this kind of attack happening in the Department of Veterans Affairs among others, with pushes to privatize the delivery of care while keeping tens of thousands of jobs vacant. Now it’s being applied across the entire federal government.

A similar dynamic is at work in public education, where public schools are denuded of money, have their class sizes drastically inflated, and then charter schools subsidized by large foundations bankrolled by the Waltons or Bill Gates are opened up to replace the now ruined public school system. This has happened in Chicago, it has happened to New Orleans, and it has happened in Los Angeles, where as of the time of this being published the United Teachers of Los Angeles are on the third day of their strike.

These government shutdowns are constitutional crises. Full stop. The far right took the entire country and the basic function of government to hostage in 2013 and paid no political price for it. Now Trump is doing the same, and with the breakdown in the American constitutional order, it means there is no easy way for this problem to be resolved through legislative or electoral action alone. Yet the seeds of the solution are visible, if you know where to look. Across the country, Transportation Security Administration employees calling in sick instead of working for free. These aren’t being deliberately organized by anyone in AFGE, but the impact is clear with long lines outside of checkpoints at major airports. This shows the need for labor to have more tools in its toolkit beyond just getting the ‘right’ people elected every two to four years.

In the end, the stakes are already high and only going to get higher as the money for SNAP and WIC and Section 8 run out. Only by being ready to take action do we have any chance of restoring the government to some basic semblance of function, much less fixing the fundamentally broken nature of the federal government.

See y’all out on the picket line.

Bryan Conlon is a National Organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). The views above are his own.

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