This post is longer than usual, but stay with me. I promise you’ll be rewarded.
The 13th Amendment reads,
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Good idea. Too bad we’re violating that amendment right now.
In an article in the New York times entitled It’s Time for T.S.A. Workers to Strike, authors Barbara Ehrenreich and Gary Stevenson show us what’s happening to our federal workers. They are prevented by law from striking, a point which was firmly made by Ronald Reagan, who fired 11,000 striking PATCO workers in 1981. They were demanding better wages and shorter working hours, as the high stress of their air traffic control jobs and overlong work hours were literally killing them. Those are good reasons to demand better, but their contract said that they couldn’t strike and they paid the price. This time, though, it’s different.
Ehrenreich and Stevenson make the case for a T.S.A. strike on the basis of violation of the 13th Amendment. Likely they identified the T.S.A. workers out of all federal workers as the ones who should strike because their striking would shut down our air traffic system and grind much of our economy to a halt. It would be enormously expensive for industry, so their strike would likely cause great pressure on government to get the shutdown resolved fast. The logic of a 13th Amendment triggered strike, though, applies to all federal workers who are forced to work during this shutdown. I’m not advocating a strike, but forcing people to work and refusing to pay them is most bad ju-ju.
The complaint isn’t about better pay, better working conditions, shorter hours or anything typical. This is about paying people as agreed. Yet they are being forced to work without pay. That’s called slavery.
Should any of our federal workers strike, there surely will be a lawsuit initiated by the Justice Department. It will be an interesting case. Let’s do a thought experiment about that.
The government will be asking for a temporary restraining order to force workers back on the job immediately. Surely, they’ll quote contract law that says the workers agreed not to strike and are thus prevented from doing so. They’ll say that the government will pay workers in full when the shutdown is over and that the promise of future pay satisfies the contract.
The defense will likely also quote contract law and make clear that the government has violated its obligations, thus nullifying the contract and freeing workers to strike. They’ll also make the Constitutional case that the government is practicing slavery in direct violation of the 13th Amendment. They might claim civil rights violations by the government as well.
The only difference between old fashioned slavery and the circumstances of today’s federal workers is that today the workers are being given a promise of being paid on some unspecified future date that could be years from now. Imagine being a federal worker and having to tell your landlord that you’ll pay your rent – some day. How well do you think that will work for you?
The way our thought experiment case is decided or the shutdown itself is ended will dramatically affect not just the workers, but our entire nation. Here are some examples:
1. Absent a quick resolution to the shut down, thousands of federal workers, whether striking or not, will find permanent full time work elsewhere because they have bills to pay. They will not be coming back to those federal jobs ever. But we need airport security, food inspectors, a fully functioning FBI and State Department, air traffic controllers and the rest. These are skilled jobs and we don’t have a bench, especially in this full employment economy. Who will do the work to make our nation function?
2. The shutdown is costing billions of dollars and, if it continues a while longer it’s projected by the President’s own economic people that it will cancel out national economic growth for the year.
3. Depending upon how this shutdown ends, we’ll be making a powerful statement about our national values. We’ll be declaring with our actions who and what we care about and we’ll be setting a precedent for the future. There will be lasting impact.
There’s more, of course, but think about the callous way our people are being treated. You’ve seen the up close and personal reports, like the woman who is trying to stretch her insulin supply because she doesn’t have money for more; and the workers who are trying to decide whether to buy food for their families or pay the electric bill; and the family with two kids, both of whom have medical issues and they’ve have run out of money to properly care for their kids; and the hundreds of thousands who now or in the very near future will be unable to pay the rent or the mortgage or the car payment. Still, they’re expected to show up and work without pay.
It’s hard to comprehend that we’re dealing with slavery in America in the 21st century.
A friend of mine is a federal worker – an air traffic controller. He’s one of those people who is dedicated to serving and works every day to keep you safe when you fly and he’s working without being paid. He’ll miss his second paycheck four days from now. I reached out to him early this week to see if there is something we can do to support him and his family. Here’s his reply:
Thank you for reaching out. This shutdown is definitely weighing on me more than the previous ones I have been a part of. This is the longest one in history and there is no trying to figure out a solution. This has turned into a school yard shouting match.
It is hard to go to work – and do my job – not knowing when I will be compensated for it. I will continue to work my scheduled shifts – my overtime shifts – the holidays – and do everything that is asked of me. I am proud of what I do and I will continue to do it.
The show of support from our union brothers and sisters from around the globe has been amazing. I have been treated to meals by the Allied Pilots Association and the Irish Air Traffic Controllers Association. The controllers in the Great White North [Canada] have taken it upon themselves to send pizzas to US facilities. Local businesses are reaching out – creditors are being understanding – some banks are offering 0% interest loans (as long as you pay them back within a certain time period). What is helping is the amount of publicity this is getting as a whole.
For now – we are okay. That may change. If this drags on, we may be forced to reach out to friends and family for financial support. We (luckily) aren’t quite there yet.
Thank you for reaching out – this has (and continues to be) a rough time and it helps to know we have a wonderful support system with some amazing people.
Please don’t let this only be a heartwarming story of people supporting others. Find a way to do your part, like overpaying your tab at the restaurant that’s providing free meals to federal workers and their families, or reaching out to someone you know who might need help, or donating to a local food bank or one of the GoFundMe sites. People are hurting and coming together in times of need is what we Americans do. It’s time for action.
Ed. Note: I don’t want money (DON’T donate) or your signature on a petition. I want you to spread the word so that we make a critical difference. So,
YOUR ACTION STEPS:
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Copyright 2019 by Jack Altschuler
Reproduction and sharing are encouraged, providing proper attribution is given.