Shutdown Slavery At The TSA

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.

21 thoughts on “Shutdown Slavery At The TSA

  1. Richard Kopf


    Slightly off point, but related–hope you don’t mind.

    The federal judiciary is treated like any other executive branch agency when it comes to appropriations. For reasons unknown to me, the federal judiciary is lumped together in one of 12 appropriation bills. Thus, if Congress fails to appropriate money for the appropriations bill that includes the judiciary then the judiciary goes into shutdown mode too. It is happening now.

    I won’t bore you or your readers with an exposition of the havoc that a shutdown of the federal judiciary causes. Suffice it to say it is severe and unbelievably time-consuming for our Chief Judge and our management staff. Additionally, like TSA workers, our workers–think docket clerks and probation officers–will not be paid and will be or have been furloughed as the judiciary tries to cope in good faith with the Antideficiency Act (ADA). The suspension of trials is not out of the question. For example, how do you pay jurors?

    So, here is my essential point. As bad as a shut down is for Executive branch agencies, at least one can argue that such an impasse is a sort of bargaining contemplated by the framers between the Executive branch and the Legislative branch.

    The failure of both parties, and the Executive and Legislative branches, to recognize that the federal judiciary is a separate branch of government that has no stake in that bargaining between the other shows the utter lack of respect for the judiciary that prevails among some politicians. Proper respect for the judiciary as a branch would result in funding of the judiciary with a minibus bill (the opposite of an omnibus bill). The failure to do so leaves me to shake my old and ugly head in frustration. It is not the first time.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      This would have made an excellent stand-alone post, Judge, as it raises not only similar questions for separation of powers questions. Add issues of constitutional magnitude to the mix and there’s a whole ‘nother level of concern.

      1. Richard Kopf


        For reasons you understand, I have no "burning" desire for much writing. All the best.


  2. Skink

    They could get a union–bunches of them. They just have to convince regular folks that it’s right. So they offer to trade their right to due process in discipline and termination for the ability to unionize. That way, they could sell themselves as regular employees and not the chosen. Of course, the trade wouldn’t actually happen because the government has a bunch of human infrastructure devoted to the due process right and the unions would just put a similar but lighter program in place, but the people convinced it’s right wouldn’t even notice.

  3. Jim Cline

    Maybe slightly off topic but I suspect that if all the protection details, office and other support staff (think dining room, gym, white house domestics) were the first to be furloughed we wouldn’t be discussing this.

  4. Tom H

    As a one time union member I can sympathize with the folks being asked to work without pay. It would drive me nuts if I was in a position that required me to show up for work knowing thousands of others were sitting at home or finding short term work because they aren’t essential.

    Everyone has been made whole in past shutdowns and will this time also. It seems doubly unfair some will collect pay for no work and some will collect pay and be required to work.

  5. Erik H

    being compelled to show up for work when your employer has no concomitant duty to timely pay you for it was never the deal.
    Are you sure?

    I don’t think it would be an appropriate deal for low-level employees, but it seems quite possible that the TSA folks contracted to work in this sort of situation, as a condition of hiring. It seems quite like the government to implement this sort of “deal.”

    (I’m sure you know, this would be in violation of state law in most states. Ironically it would also violate federal wage laws.)

    1. SHG Post author

      You ever get the sense that somebody skimmed rather than read (hint “FLSA”) before commenting? I get that all the time.

      Do you think TSA agents signed an employment contract that stated they would get paid every two weeks unless there was a government shutdown, in which case they would get paid whenever?

  6. B. McLeod

    Given that they don’t know how long the pay issue will persist, they almost have to sneak out to try to land job interviews. Any job is better than a fulltime job that pays nothing. Even if they go to work in the fast food industry, it will be a step up.

  7. LocoYokel

    I am not condoning anybody’s actions or trying to be an apologist for anybody here, but I feel the need to make an observation. And you will probably say this is off topic, which, strictly speaking, it is.

    Pretty much all the media accounts I have read blame Trump 100% for the shutdown and demand he acquiesce to Pelosi’s demands (if there are any accounts spinning the other way I have not seen them). However, I see two names in the above sentence which indicates that there are at least two people equally responsible for this current situation (and, depending on how you split it, probably most of the House can be included on one side). Yes, if Trump wanted his wall he should have acted to implement it during the past two years (but I doubt that even a full Republican congress would have given it to him) instead of waiting but Pelosi bears her fair share of the blame for the current shutdown. Either of them could stop it in a minute if they wanted. This appears to be nothing more than a penis contest to me, they are both trying to prove they are the biggest dick around, at everyone else’s expense – as usual for these types.

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