How to Make Sure Federal Workers Won’t Go Unpaid Ever Again

AP Photo/Steven Senne

Internal Revenue Service employees protest the federal shutdown in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston. 

In March 1970, 250,000 postal workers went out on strike because Congress
 was refusing to enact legislation that would give them a long overdue raise. Many postal workers were then receiving welfare to supplement their extremely low wages. At the time, Congressional legislation was the only way that postal workers could get a raise, but because of Congressional wrangling over the structure of the Postal Service, action on postal wages was stalled. 

Led by militant rank and file leaders in New York City, the letter carriers, postal clerks, mail handlers and other postal workers hit the bricks in a wildcat strike that soon spread all across the nation, so that postal service was stalled completely. As federal employees, the postal workers were denied the right to strike, and President Richard Nixon both implored and threatened the strikers to go back to work at pain of fines, imprisonment, and job loss—all to no avail. Nixon then called on federal troops to sort and deliver the mail, but they lacked the skills to do the jobs.

AFL-CIO President George Meany intervened on the strikers’ behalf, and George Shultz, Nixon’s secretary of labor, intervened in hopes of settling the conflict. Though some Nixon staff members wanted to treat the strike as an insurrection, Shultz and other cooler heads prevailed and worked out a settlement that provided increased pay and bonuses for the postal workers along with private sector-style collective bargaining, complete with binding arbitration to resolve all future disputes, in light of the continued denial of the right to strike. That regime has now been in place and implemented successfully during almost 50 years of stable postal labor relations.

Today, a similar labor crisis in the federal sector confronts the nation. But this time it consists of a lockout of about 300,000 federal employees who have been sent home from work without pay because of political gridlock, and another 500,000 who are being forced to work without receiving their statutorily mandated pay for the same reason.

Some observers have argued that requiring federal employees to work without being paid amounts to “involuntary servitude” under the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Others have claimed that President Trump’s requiring federal employees to work without pay is a “taking” of their property (that is, their labor) without “just compensation” as required under the Fifth Amendment. Still others argue that requiring these workers to stay on the job without pay deprives them of substantive due process under the Constitution.

All of these constitutional arguments have much force. Unfortunately, it would take years for the judiciary to resolve these claims on behalf of these hundreds of thousands of victimized federal employees. Meanwhile, we see in the media the suffering of these dedicated federal employees and their families growing worsewith each passingday.

Just as the postal  workers’ situation, which resulted from a political impasse, was resolved sensibly in 1970, the same ought to occur promptly to resolve the current shutdown, which is causing intense hardship for individuals who have no culpability whatsoever for the situation they are in. 

There needs to be a way that the federal workforce is no longer made the innocent victim of political conflicts of elected officials. Section 13 of the National Labor Relations Act protects the fundamental right of private-sector employees to strike. This right has not been accorded federal employees, presumably because of the critical nature of their duties. Of course, if their duties are so critical, they shouldn’t be furloughed and they should be paid. When they’re locked out or made to work without pay, that undercuts the rationale for denying them the right to strike.

We need to ensure that federal workers are never victimized again by the political process, with no ability to seek reasonable recourse. To give them that recourse, Congress should enact legislation that not only re-opens the government but gives federal workers the same rights that most American workers already possess: the right to withhold their labor when their boss imposes unlivable demands on them. If the right to strike is a bridge too far, we at least need a new law that grants federal workers the right to continued pay in the event of any future shutdowns, and the right to collective bargaining and mandatory arbitration of all job related issues. These workers, like all American workers, deserve no less.

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