One government worker’s perspective on fighting the Trump shutdown
It's going to take more than phone calls to the White House switchboard to force the hand of this administration. | Evan Vucci / AP

As I carefully read the tea leaves last Friday ahead of the possible government shutdown, my optimism that this would be much ado about nothing switched to pessimism. Such are the pitfalls of trying to follow any story in a linear fashion out of this White House. There seems to be many messages coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., each contradicting the other. And these many messages come mostly from the mouth of the occupant of the Oval Office.

I reactivated my Hawaii Department of Education teacher application and expanded my availability to other islands in the state. I worried that if a shutdown did happen, there would be no light at the end of this tunnel, and like all workers, my income was in jeopardy.

I have worked for the federal government for 12 years, been a member of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) for a fraction of that, and was recently made a shop steward. It goes without saying the challenges we face as federal workers precede this shutdown and Donald Trump, but the attacks this administration has made against government unions have been novel and sustained. While the Bush II administration prohibited my agency from organizing altogether, Obama opened the door but with many limitations to what our elected union could do.

The shutdown is now stretching well past the Christmas holiday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated there will be no more business on the Senate floor until the Democrats and Trump agreed on something that the president would sign.

The prospect of no paychecks became more ominous with McConnell’s improbable scenario. Until January, the Republicans run both houses of the Congress and the White House.

Few workers can endure this financially, and this is no different here in Hawaii where the gentrification plaguing most cities on the U.S. mainland takes on a different dimension. For one, there are few suburbs to exploit for cheaper housing and, two, tourism has replaced agriculture as Hawaii’s number-one industry. These jobs are not known to be well-paying ones. In fact, the reliance on tourism further undercuts the availability of housing as property owners have turned to Airbnb to make greater returns than they can on full-time rentals.

And still our response to these shutdowns is the same tactic. Call the White House. Tell the switchboard where you live. Stress what a burden this shutdown will have on working people. All day Friday and through the weekend, my colleagues and I were encouraged to make this call, telling them, “We want to work!”

There is no strengthening of the labor movement to come from calling the switchboard of this White House unless your name is Rush Limbaugh or Anne Coulter. The occupant of the Oval Office, who, it should be remembered, lost the 2016 election by three million votes, does not even listen to the moderating, albeit reactionary voices within his own White House.

But the generational erosion of the labor movement, under either political party’s administration, continues uninterrupted.

It should be part of our collective memory how at the dawn of the Cold War the unions, especially the CIO, were purged of Communist members who had formed the backbone of the labor movement, and how several affiliated unions were de-certified.

It should also be remembered that the infamous Hollywood witch hunt was prompted by labor-organizing activities, most notably John Howard Lawson. Lawson, a screenwriter and Communist Party member who had come to Hollywood in the 1920s, formed the Screen Writers Guild in 1934, to the ire of all the studio heads, like Louis B. Mayer, Sam Cohn, and Jack Warner, who vowed to crush it.

These studio heads colluded with the House Committee and, later, Sen. Joe McCarthy.

It was during the recent nomination hearings for Brett Kavanaugh that University of Houston scholar Prof. Gerald Horne issued an indictment and analysis on Pacifica Radio that applies to the degrading state of the labor movement.

“In fact our liberal friends owe us an apology,” Horne said in assessing Kavanaugh’s rise this past June, “because they in some ways helped to lead us to the brink of disaster. The ACLU for example purged those to its left, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a founder [and member of the Communist Party USA]; the AFL-CIO purged those to its left, including Harry Bridges of the International Longshoremen & Warehouse Union [and member of the Communist Party USA]; the NAACP purged its founder, W.E.B. DuBois [also a Communist Party USA member]—this objectively strengthened the right wing”

The large fractures in our labor movement that demand mending cannot be disconnected from these attacks, and it is continuously perplexing that our analysis of our situation as a labor movement does not deal with this history.

The current government shutdown is in part a management lock-out of workers disparaged, rhetorically dismissed, and attacked by this president and his agency heads. This has been widely reported in the pages of People’s World and elsewhere. The Trump administration’s response to the tossing of his anti-worker orders a few months back has been to double down.

Management Directives (MD) have been issued by the federal agencies that directly contradict collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between management and the labor unions representing the federal workers.

These MDs seem to cover pretty mundane things so far, but they are forcing local shop stewards and the unions to defend the CBAs piecemeal and use up precious resources doing so.

This is an uphill battle meant to exhaust any revival of the labor movement’s strength. It is in these contexts that urgings to call the White House switchboard seem a bit feeble.

Also, besides denying 800,000 federal workers their pay, the unmentioned consequence is that our elected unions are denied their dues payments, which are payroll deductions.

When I suggest a more robust response as a union to the shutdown and these persistent attacks than calls to the White House, I get mostly pushback from co-workers. “Remember PATCO and the air-traffic controllers,” they warn, recalling Reagan’s firing of the striking air-traffic controllers; to which I have a rehearsed reply: Remember the postal workers strike in 1970 which won.

I am well aware that neither I nor AFGE can advocate industrial action [i.e., strike], so I will not. But I will keep repeating that the labor movement continues to be degraded from the points I just mentioned, and all we are left to do is manage the decline, not avert it. We can choose to be mummified by past losses or choose to be imaginative, be inspired, and to take control.

The labor movement cannot act as if history began and ended with Reagan firing the air-traffic controllers. We forget the labor struggles of the past and what they achieved Even when those industrial actions achieved nothing in the short term, we forget how our militancy scared the pants off the political class into enacting accommodations for us.

The postal workers knew this in 1970, and it was a Republican president who acquiesced. In fact. they went on in 2012 to further success after a “hunger strike.”

If the failure of PATCO continues to be our only reference point, we will remain mummified and helpless to the onslaughts to come, and this administration has already demonstrated more is to come.

I have communicated with other AFGE organizers in other districts, and there are other strategies being imagined by those not paralyzed by the Reagan-era rewind. Bottom line, in the long run, the labor movement will have to reconsider how closely it will be bound by anti-labor laws if it wants to make any headway on behalf of the rank and file. Shutdowns and lock-outs like this reveal just how much our fragile lives depend on our paychecks, so we must demonstrate our power in more effective ways.


Lowell B. Denny, III
Lowell B. Denny, III

Lowell B. Denny III lives in Hawaii.