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A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) worker screens passengers and airport employees at O'Hare International Airport on January 07, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. TSA employees are currently working under the threat of not receiving their next paychecks, scheduled for January 11, because of the partial government shutdown now in its third week. As a result, there have been reports of an increase in TSA workers calling in sick at some airports. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

TSA Strike? As Trump and GOP Refuse to End Shutdown, Call Grows for Federal Workers to Rise Up

Is there something that TSA agents in particular could do that "would turn their plight into a stand not just against the shutdown but also against the arbitrary and insulting way American workers are so often treated in general?"

Jon Queally

As the current partial government shutdown has become the longest in U.S. history—even with the latest polls showing President Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans increasingly seen as the ones to blame for the crisis—it remains to be seen how the Democrats, with no reason to give ground, can apply enough pressure to bring the current impasse to an end.

But according to journalist and activist Barbara Ehrenreich and veteran labor organizer Gary Stevenson, it's possible that the best bet—and in their minds, a key opportunity—is for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees now furloughed or forced to work without pay to take matters into their own hands.

While acknowledging how "painful" the shutdown has been for federal workers and their families locked out of work for more than three weeks, Ehrenreich and Stevenson argue in a New York Times op-ed published Monday that the current political deadlock between the two major political parties is "also an opportunity for labor to take a stand."

Putting a strategic focus on the nation's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers—"among the most visible" of the estimated 800,000 workers affected by the shutdown—the op-ed explores the idea of TSA workers going beyond passive resistance like sick-outs (an estimated 5.6 percent of the total 51,000 member TSA workforce called in sick last Saturday), and doing something bolder and more coordinated: "a genuine, old-fashioned strike, one with picket lines, chants, quickened pulses and the power to reignite the traditional fighting spirit of American labor."

"Is there something more they can do—?" Ehrenreich and Stevenson ask, referring to the passive and uncoordinated calling out sick to work. "Something that would turn their plight into a stand not just against the shutdown but also against the arbitrary and insulting way American workers are so often treated in general?"

The TSA workers, they continue, "should use last year’s teachers' strikes as a model. They were called not by the leadership of the teachers' unions but by the rank and file. It was a new kind of labor activism, starting at the bottom and depending heavily on community support. By sticking together and creating their own communication system, the teachers succeeded in sending a powerful message of solidarity and strength."

From the op-ed:

This is a moment of tremendous opportunity. An unpopular president has arbitrarily plunged nearly a million families into financial jeopardy and in some cases poverty. If airport workers, for example, declare a strike, they can expect to attract fervent community support. Even travelers who have a hard time believing that the key to air safety lies in their shoes or laptop are likely to listen to the federal inspectors who have been picketing major airports with signs asking: "Was your airplane properly repaired and inspected today? The F.A.A. does not know!" 

Whether rank-and-file action by T.S.A. workers and other federal employees would have the power of last year's teachers' strikes remains to be seen. How long would the public support it? And what about the business community, which depends so heavily on the smooth transfer of corporate travelers from one airport to another?

To the question of public backing, the idea of a #TSAStrike was finding plenty of anecdotal support across social media:

While the op-ed authors admit that a strike of TSA agents, because they are essential federal workers "would be illegal, as was the wave of public-sector strikes in the 1960s and '70s," the moral case for such an action is "unquestionably firm." And they, add, "the time has come."

Because the "federal government has broken its contract with its employees — locking some of them out of their workplaces and expecting others to work for the mere promise of eventual pay," the TSA workers would be on very firm footing to walk off the job on behalf of themselves and the greater good.

Without some kind of major shift, write Ehrenreich and Stevenson, "All we know is that the shutdown continues without a break in sight."

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