What if they couldn’t even afford the pizza that came in the box that told them about their job? Few, myself included, will cry a tear for the employees of the Transportation Safety Administration, the blue-shirted bit-players in the longest running show at the airport. But as much as they produce nothing beyond annoyance, the TSA agents are employees, working for a living, for the United States government.
Since T.S.A. agents, who are among the most visible of the affected workers, make do on a starting wage of about $23,000 a year (with the possibility of going up to about $43,000), these can be hair-raising calculations: Skip the children’s dentist appointments and pay the electric company? Or try to get an extension on the utility bill and go without getting the car fixed?
With no end to the government shutdown in sight, and neither side wise enough to give the other a backdoor, these employees aren’t as easily dismissed as GS 10s, who should have seen it coming and prepared. At the bottom of the wage scale, they were already below the poverty level for a family of four. Sure, there are benefits to working for the government, such as job security, as well as the occasional detriment like a shutdown, but as despicable as some TSA agents may be, it’s still a job. A job they’re being told to do without a paycheck, if only for now.
Last Saturday, about 5.6 percent of the roughly 51,000 T.S.A. officers stayed home sick, the Federal Aviation Administration reported.
In contrast to a strike, blue flu — a condition that has also been known to afflict police officers — is a quiet form of protest, with no stated principles or claim for public attention or sympathy. At the end of the day, each worker goes home and calculates his or her ability to go another week or two — or months or years, as the president has threatened — without a paycheck and acts accordingly.
Notably, “blue flu” is an unlawful work action, one of the many reasons why public sector unionism is a travesty. And falsely calling in sick is just as much a job action, even if it’s less concerted. But it’s harder to criticize a worker for falsely calling in sick when the alternative is going to work without a paycheck.
The question is what comes next. With no end in sight for the shutdown, should the T.S.A. workers continue this passive-aggressive form of protest? Or is there something more they can do, 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?
This is where one problem, understandable regardless of whether it’s agreeable, takes the big leap into a very different problem. Individual TSA agents refusing to go to work without knowing they will get a timely paycheck for their below-poverty-level job may be passive-agressive, but will it create the conditions that produce concerted action, a groundswell of collective action so that they will be storming the barricades instead of guarding them?
A strike by T.S.A. agents, as federal workers, would be illegal, as was the wave of public-sector strikes in the 1960s and ’70s. But this time is different, said Michael M. Oswalt, an associate professor of law at Northern Illinois University College of Law, who studies federal labor relations. “A strike over involuntary work would raise not just novel legal issues but important and unprecedented questions about the value of public service and middle-class employment in our country,” he said.
There’s a question of whether federal government employees are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, but regardless, being compelled to show up for work when your employer has no concomitant duty to timely pay you for it was never the deal. It’s not about whether they should have the wherewithal to survive a shutdown, but what they should do about it now, and what will come of it going forward.
The moral foundation for a strike is unquestionably firm. 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. An even more profound principle is also at stake, namely the ban on slavery and involuntary servitude embodied in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
When the air traffic controllers went on strike in 1981, Reagan fired 11,000 PATCO members. Momentary dread that planes would crash and fall out of the sky was replaced with cheers when he broke the union. But demanding involuntary servitude, even from an agency we would do better without, isn’t the same as defying the law and refusing to do the job for which you’re getting paid what you agreed to be paid.
Gary Stevenson, a former organizer for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the American Federation of Teachers, sees this as an opportunity, the right time for a grassroots uprising of TSA agents.
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 his assessment of unpopularity is right, and that TSA agents aren’t the only people less popular than the president, remains to be seen. Nor would his “nice plane you got there” threat endear travelers to their cause. And it’s worthwhile to remember that these aren’t the most highly-trained, or difficult to replace, employees on the government’s payroll.
But at the same time, they’re paid crap and told to show for work, even though there’s no end to the shutdown in sight. The wrongs here are stacking up like planes over La Guardia Airport, and the outcome may be a serious problem for both the TSA agents and the rest of us. For the moment, it’s hard to criticize their job action. And it’s hard to not see Stevenson’s point that this is a union opportunity.