The President's Column: President Trump's Shutdown Learning CurveFebruary 19, 2019
Shuttering the government taught the administration about worker power.
President Trump taught us a few lessons when he shut down much of the federal government for several weeks, beginning during the holidays. We learned that he was willing to blackmail taxpayers into giving him $5.7 billion to start building his beloved wall. (The same one he promised that Mexico would pay for.) We learned—once again—that he doesn’t know how the government works. (After his first two years in office treating Congress as his servants, he now faces a Democraticled House of Representatives that knows Congress is a separate, coequal branch under the Constitution.) We learned that the security of airline passengers; the safety of our food and medicine; the protection of our air and water; the care of our national parks; the security of our nuclear stockpiles, the ability of millions of low-income children and families to feed themselves, and hundreds of other services provided by the federal government and paid for by our taxes—all mean less than nothing, or at least less than his fantasy wall, to this president.
But perhaps most important, we learned of Mr. Trump’s utter disregard for and hostility to working people (particularly to the 800,000 federal employees who provide the abovementioned services and whom he expected to work without pay). Perhaps we are being unfair in placing this contempt solely on Mr. Trump. In supporting the shutdown virtually every member of the Republican Party showed allegiance not to the people who elected them, but to the worst president in the history of the United States.
We should not be surprised by Mr. Trump. He came to Washington with a decades-long history of fighting labor unions, stiffing building contractors and paying below minimum wage to the workers (many of them undocumented immigrants) who construct his buildings and care for his resorts and casinos. This is a guy who inherited some $450 million from his father and whose first response to furloughed federal workers going unpaid was to suggest they “borrow from their parents.” In the meantime, many of these workers couldn’t pay their rents and mortgages; they were forced to use food banks to feed their families and drive Ubers or do other temp jobs for the five weeks they were locked out.
Such contempt for working people is in keeping with the entire thrust of this White House and its Republican enablers in Congress.
Mr. Trump and his cabinet of billionaires would likely have kept the lock-out going for another month were it not for the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, newly empowered by the Democratic takeover in the midterm elections, showed the president how government is supposed to function. Workers also fought back, especially those in the airline industry. Things really shifted when TSA worker sick-outs began to threaten airline safety and partially close airports in New York, New Jersey, Atlanta and elsewhere. Air traffic controllers warned of an impending catastrophe. And it probably wasn’t coincidental that President Trump caved on the shutdown a day after the flight attendants’ union called for a general strike of all airline workers.
In the beginning, Mr. Trump appeared eager for the shutdown and to claim credit for it. Such contempt for working people is in keeping with the entire thrust of this White House and its Republican enablers in Congress. We have seen time and time again their manipulation of our government, public institutions, and longstanding conventions for their own gain. They pack the U.S. Supreme Court with Far Right ideologues who eventually rule in favor of anti-union right-to-work laws. The administration, incompetent about so many things, gutted with almost surgical precision the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Labor Relations Board and hundreds of environmental protections. And of course, the signature Trump White House issue, which is backed overwhelmingly by Republican lawmakers, is hostility toward the immigrant workers who harvest our crops, toil in the kitchens of our eating facilities, landscape our neighborhoods and carry out the infinite number of unseen responsibilities that make society function (all while being poorly paid, living in the shadows and going without health care and other basic protections of a civilized country).
What other great lessons did we learn from the shutdown and lockout of federal workers? First, that there is great power when workers organize, unite and fight for what is right. And second, that elections have consequences—be it the 2016 presidential election or the 2018 midterms. Best get ready now: 2020 is coming.