Helaine Olen: Should federal workers walk off the job?

Security lines at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta stretch more than an hour long amid the partial federal shutdown, causing some travelers to miss flights, Monday morning, Jan. 14, 2019. The long lines signaled staffing shortages at security checkpoints, as TSA officers have been working without pay since the federal shutdown began Dec. 22. (John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

It says everything about the lowly state of the American worker that it has taken weeks for the idea that federal employees working without pay maybe should refuse to work to begin creeping into our civic discourse.

On Monday, Barbara Ehrenreich and Gary Stevenson called for what amounts to a wildcat strike by the nation's Transportation Security Administration agents, while over the weekend, veteran labor reporter Bob Hennelly at Salon went even further, pondering a national general strike in support of the 800,000 federal workers currently not receiving a paycheck.

It's about time.

The federal government has been partially closed for business due to President Donald "I am proud to shut down the government" Trump's intransigence for 24 long days. During that time, 800,000 federal workers and a large number of federal contractors have not received paychecks, even as about 420,000 government employees are deemed so "essential" that they are required to still turn up and do their jobs. For the most part, they are doing just that. After all, if they don't, they could be fired and their unions fined. The law forbids federal employees from striking, which is why a number of federal unions and workers have taken to the courts, alleging everything from violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act to claims that demanding workers show up for their jobs even though they have no idea when they will receive a paycheck amounts to "indentured servitude" and is an unconstitutional violation of the 13th Amendment.

In this crucial way, the many federal workers potentially have the leverage to stick it to Trump and put an end to the shutdown. Will Trump, who claimed a net worth of $10 billion, really fire workers en masse if they call in sick day after day or simply engage in a slowdown because they are not receiving a paycheck? Will the American people stand for it if he does? Who would replace them, seeing as no immediate paycheck is on offer? As Ehrenreich and Stevenson pointed out, they don't even need their unions to organize for them - last year's red-state teacher walk-outs were coordinated by the teachers themselves on Facebook and other social media. And, in the meantime, if these workers are all so essential, how will we get by without them? Answer: In many cases, we probably won't. You want to fly without a TSA agent staffing security? I didn't think so.

So why did it take so long to discuss workers staying home? Well, we've likely so internalized our powerlessness as employees, we lack the knowledge of what power we possess. We have suffered, mostly silently, as our pay has stagnated (or worse) for more than a generation, and our rights on the job, never robust, have declined markedly. Yet Americans continue to identify with their work. We put in long hours and are the only first-world country with no national right to a single vacation or sick day. Most of us don't even leave our desks for lunch. (Guilty.) We're more likely than Europeans to say our ultimate success depends on hard work and less likely to attribute failures to outside economic and political forces. We are, all too often, our jobs. Take that away from us, and we are bereft.

The more money we make and the more authority we possess in our jobs, the more likely we are to say we are happy with our employment. Perhaps then it shouldn't come as a surprise that the most prominent signs of federal worker protest are coming from the TSA, where a typical front-line worker earns little more than $30,000 annually. Even when they are paid, turnover is high and morale is low. Over the past several days, TSA work absences have been twice as common as they were at this time in 2018, and they are growing. On Monday, security checkpoints at Dulles International Airport in the Washington area were shut down, while would-be passengers waited more than an hour in Atlanta to get screened. "I'm at @ATLairport and this may be the longest security line I have ever seen," CNN reporter Omar Jimenez tweeted out on Monday.

It says something about Americans that few of us are questioning how safe this is. Common sense says a worker who isn't getting paid is not going to be an employee on top of his or her game. But that didn't seem to occur to many, perhaps because we ourselves are all but numb to the outrage that is the fact we are constantly expected to do more at our places of employment with less in the way of resources, even as corporate shareholders make out like bandits.

One group that did not make this mistake: the Trump administration. When the real estate industry pointed out that the mortgage industry would come to a sudden halt unless the IRS could perform income verifications, not only were the clerks who perform the service suddenly deemed essential, they also were cleared to get paid. As well they should be. We shouldn't expect anyone to show up for work if they are not receiving a check for services rendered when they are accustomed to receiving it. Trump's whining on about a wall that will do next to nothing for our nation's security while the front-line workers who are tasked with preventing another Sept. 11 go unpaid is the ultimate scam. Someone needs to call him on it.

Here’s a thought: The Women’s March is set for Saturday. Federal workers should join it. My guess is they will find a lot of support in the crowd.

Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen is a contributor to Post Opinions and the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.” Her work has appeared in Slate, the Nation, the New York Times, the Atlantic and many other publications. She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.