“Do we have your attention now, Leader McConnell?” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, posed this question after shutdown-related staffing shortages at the Federal Aviation Administration all but halted air traffic in the Northeast. The longest-running federal government shutdown came to an end just hours later, fittingly brought to an end by government workers, the people most impacted by the ordeal.
Nelson made waves among the labor community at an AFL-CIO awards ceremony earlier in January when she called for a general strike in support of furloughed workers. “Federal sector unions have their hands full caring for the 800,000 federal workers who are at the tip of the spear,” Nelson said. “Some would say the answer is for them to walk off the job. I say, what are you willing to do?”
The solidarity from flight attendants was all the more remarkable given that they’re private sector employees. Though they might have received their paychecks throughout the shutdown, Nelson pointed out that they depended on the public sector workers that make up the backbone of aviation safety. “Our country doesn’t run without the federal workers who make it run,” Nelson told Slate, “and there’s no industry where that’s more evident than the airline industry, where our private airlines work in tandem with the federal agencies.”
As labor historian Joseph McCartin wrote in the American Prospect, the ghosts of 1980s labor history haunted federal workers throughout the shutdown. McCartin literally wrote the book on a devastating moment for the American labor movement — the air traffic controller strike of 1981, when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization defied a federal strike ban, only to see its members summarily fired by President Ronald Reagan. Surely it’s no accident that the Trump administration admitted Reagan into the Labor Department’s hall of fame.
McCartin, and many others, suggested federal workers stage mass sickouts as an alternative form of protest in response to Trump’s worker hostage situation. On the day they missed their second paycheck, workers did just that. The F.A.A. cited “a slight increase in sick leave” as the reason why they rerouted flights across the Eastern seaboard.
So what ultimately protected the air traffic controllers who called in sick last month? McCartin attributes it to public opinion. The 1981 strike took place during the rise of Reaganomics. The latest sickout, McCartin pointed out in the Washington Post, ended a wildly unpopular shutdown and followed a string of successful labor actions.
Ending the shutdown was an important display of worker power. There’s still quite a bit to be done — hundreds of thousands of federal contractors still need to receive back pay and Trump continues to threaten to hold workers hostage while small-government lackeys watch with glee. But the end of the shutdown may also be another signal that one of the most debilitating chapters of American labor history has closed.
Surely the air safety personnel had been watching the mass movement of teachers striking for more pay and better classroom conditions — demands that benefit both the workers and their communities. Perhaps they’d also witnessed the recent success of the largest hotel strike in U.S. history, where Marriott workers won pay raises as well as additional safeguards against sexual assault.
Maybe the New York safety officers were looking closer to home, where workers also pushed back against Trump’s anti-immigrant policies with strikes. The New York Taxi Workers Association came through with one of the earliest high-profile displays of worker resistance shortly after the Trump administration announced his Muslim ban. Airports were again a site of worker struggle as cab drivers refused to pick up passengers at New York’s JFK airport for one hour.
The taxi strike also offered naysayers a chance to see the penalties for opposing worker actions. When ride-sharing company Uber, then headed by then-Trump adviser Travis Kalanick (a lot has changed for Kalanick over the past two years), lifted surge pricing at JFK around the time of the strike, passengers revolted, making #DeleteUber trend almost immediately.
It’s no surprise that the shutdown ended thanks to the actions of workers. They’ve been on the front lines of the fight against Donald Trump’s agenda from the earliest days of his presidency.
Negin Owliaei is a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-edits Inequality.org.