Back in mid-December, at the March for Public Education, I reported on the floundering labor negotiations of Angeleno teachers demanding better pay and working conditions. There was no way to know then that their threatened strike would dovetail with the longest shutdown of the federal government in U.S. history. Yesterday 30,000 members of the United Teachers Los Angeles union joined picket lines across the city, as the shutdown entered its 24th day.
I wrote in my last post of the potential for TSA 'sick outs' to explode in strikes at major airports, and to grind air travel to a halt -- big economy-impacting events that would surely weaken Donald Trump's intransigence to reopen the government without border wall funding or Mitch McConnell's resistance to holding a floor vote. Labor holds the key in ending this dispute quickly, but will the unions use it?
At the Rally to End the Government Shutdown in DC last week, I spoke with J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the biggest union representing federal workers. I asked him what would happen if the sick outs exploded and became de facto strikes, but he wouldn't entertain the scenario and denied that sick outs were actually occurring.
AFGE and its allies are suing the administration over violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, but at this point, they appear to have little appetite for leadership-led striking. There are many reasons for that posture: the law, weakened membership and funding, and the risk of mass firing à la Ronald Reagan and the air traffic controllers' union strike of 1981.
Strikes by federal employees are illegal, but so is involuntary servitude. Government workers have the moral high ground and the Constitution on their side, and they will not be able to withstand the financial pressures for much longer. Airport protests have happened in Atlanta, at the nation's busiest airport, and Milwaukee, and will likely grow and spread as the shutdown drags on. These protests may help to spark employee-led, or wildcat, strikes. You heard a lot about wildcat strikes last year with teachers' unions across the country, in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.
Which brings me back to LA teachers (whose strike is leadership-led). A defining characteristic of unions is solidarity amongst labor. With such a large contingent of teachers off the job, they could show up at airports en masse to protest the shutdown in solidarity with TSA agents and air traffic controllers, creating space for those workers to join them. And it could be a huge tipping point. Imagine 30,000 teachers and other supporters descending on Los Angeles International Airport, the second busiest in the United States. Any slowing or stoppage of air travel would be problematic for business and create enormous pressure on Trump and Congress to negotiate.
California has repeatedly led the nation in resisting the immoral and unconstitutional actions of the Trump administration. It could do so again.