The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Government Workers Shut Down the Shutdown

Feb 4, 2019

The following article is the editorial from The SPARK’s workplace newsletters, for the week of January 28, 2019.

35 days – and the shutdown came to an end. Not because the bully in the White House came to his senses. He didn’t. Not because the Republican party stood up to the bully who heads their own party. They didn’t. And not because the Democrats finally developed a real sense of empathy for the people being ground up in the mess the two parties had created. And, no, they didn’t either.

The shutdown was shut down by the people it had most affected: the federal government workers. Employees who were supposed to work without pay stopped coming in to work. Some who had been laid off, also without pay, and who were now ordered to report, didn’t. Cities around the country saw thousands of federal workers demonstrating – and others lining up at food banks or food pantries, carrying signs as they did.

Some of the demonstrations were union-organized demonstrations, with printed signs. Some featured homemade signs, with just a few people standing outside a federal facility.

It wasn’t really a very organized action.

It was a practical outpouring. Workers who couldn’t come in, didn’t. After missing two paychecks, workers didn’t have the money to buy gas or pay a baby-sitter. But behind practical problems was a sense of outrage by people who go to work every day, only to see themselves treated like hostages in a gang war.

Both parties had their toes burnt a little, held to the fire of the workers’ anger.

What Comes Next?

So the two parties both stepped back. But no one should believe that either party will make its priority the needs of the population or of the federal workers.

Almost as soon as Trump announced the end of the shutdown, he insisted that he would still have “his wall,” and that if he didn’t get it in three weeks, there could be another shutdown.

The Democrats, busy celebrating for making Trump back down, made it clear what their issue is. They’re pleased their party outlasted Trump, and that Pelosi kept their party in line, while the Republican party crumbled.

If you want to see what the two parties will do, consider the workers’ lost pay. Federal workers are supposed to get paid for days they worked without pay – but they won’t be paid for at least another week. Trump, who threatens to issue an order declaring a national emergency in order to get “his wall” built, wouldn’t issue an order to get 800,000 workers paid immediately. The two parties in Congress, which swiftly passed ten bills funding the government, didn’t pass legislation calling for immediate paychecks for all the time lost.

None of them recognized the many more people who lost wages during this shutdown – all the government contractors who work for the federal government, but weren’t considered part of the “furlough.” Just like every other employer in the country, the federal government hires out much of its work to private companies. People working to clean facilities, or provide food in them, or repair buildings, or program computers or research the weather – they all work for private companies. They were laid off, and they aren’t to be paid.

If anything can come out of all this, it won’t come from any politician in either party.

It will come from what the workers did. The federal workers weren’t engaged in a strike – not in the ordinary sense of the word. But like every strike, what they did showed that for work to get done, the workers have to be there. It’s a pretty simple, obvious idea, but profound. It shows the potential power that workers can have.

Like every strike, it carried the potential to infect other workers – because it made other workers feel a sense of solidarity with those under attack; it let them see they have a common enemy. The future – if there is to be one – can only belong to the whole class to which most federal employees belong: the working class.