It’s illegal for federal workers to strike. That’s why you’ll never hear federal worker union leaders publicly calling for one. The last group of federal workers to strike was air traffic controllers in 1981, and President Ronald Reagan fired all 11,000 of them. But as days stretched to weeks in the partial government shutdown, “essential” federal workers got so sick of working without pay that they began to call out “sick” in increasing numbers. Attendance was down among Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers, air traffic controllers, and others. Of the 30,000 Internal Revenue Service (IRS) workers President Donald Trump ordered back to work without pay three weeks into the shutdown, only 16,000 showed up.
At a Jan. 20 Martin Luther King Jr. event, Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson called for union leaders to organize a “general strike” to end the shutdown.
“We need to follow Dr. King’s lead and think big,” Nelson said. “Almost a million workers are locked out or being forced to work without pay. Others are going to work when our workspace is increasingly unsafe. What is the Labor Movement waiting for?”
The turning point came on Day 34, Jan. 25 — the second missed payday — when at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, so few air traffic controllers showed up to work that the Federal Aviation Administration had to temporarily halt flights. The closure led to a ripple effect of flight delays at airports throughout the East Coast. Within hours, Trump agreed to sign a spending bill to end the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
The 800,000 federal workers who returned to work Jan. 28 may have those “sick” air traffic controllers to thank. Such is the power of the strike, by whatever name. And it’s not just federal workers and contractors who owe them gratitude, but farmers applying for loans, national park visitors, taxpayers needing IRS advice, Americans who rely on food stamps … the list goes on.