WASHINGTON — Three weeks into the partial government shutdown, hundreds of thousands of people are still being asked to work for the government without pay, but they are legally prohibited from striking in protest.
Like 53,000 other TSA workers, Shekina Givens has been doing her job for the past three weeks without pay. She says she and her coworkers are “starting to get more nervous” and increasingly frustrated that they can’t strike as the shutdown drags on.
“It just makes you feel like you don’t have any leverage,” said Givens, who works at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and is American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union representative. “They’re able to do whatever they want to do to us but there’s no way for us to fight, there’s no way for us to make a statement where it really counts,” she said.
As negotiations between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats make no progress, Givens is one of some 420,000 federal employees who are being asked to continue working without any indication of when their next paycheck will arrive. Another estimated 380,000 federal workers have been furloughed and are not being paid either.
Federal employee unions are demanding an end to the shutdown, have sued the federal government, and are organizing members to protest this week. But unlike unions that represent private sector workers, they’re legally not allowed to encourage their members to strike when they’re not being paid.
That’s because of a federal law that government employees are not allowed to strike, or even talk about striking.
“An individual may not accept or hold a position in the Government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia if he … participates in a strike, or asserts the right to strike, against the Government of the United States,” the law reads.
The AFGE, the largest federal employee union in the US, said the last notable example of federal workers striking, in the 1980s under the Reagan administration, did not end well for the workers.
“When the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) struck in 1980, then President Ronald Reagan had them all fired and permanently banned from federal service,” AFGE’s general counsel’s office told BuzzFeed News in a statement.
“As a result 13,000 air traffic controllers had their careers destroyed. Any strike by federal employees is a suicide mission,” the office added.
The workers considered “essential” and being asked to continue working without pay include more than 16,000 Bureau of Prisons correctional officers, 53,000 TSA workers, 54,000 Customs and Border Protection workers, and 42,000 members of the Coast Guard.
Some federal workers are planning to protest the shutdown in several cities across the country and in DC on Thursday and Friday.