In the hours after President Donald Trump announced a short-term plan to end the longest government shutdown in history, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was showered in praise.
The hashtag PelosiWins began going viral on Twitter. MSNBC pundit Lawrence O’Donnell credited her with “crushing” the president. Vanity Fair’s headline blared, “Checkmate: Nancy Breaks Trump and Ends the Shutdown,” proclaiming that “Pelosi’s masterclass, and plummeting polls, forced the president’s hand.” ThinkProgress editor Ian Millhiser warned to “never ever” ― with the second word repeated 36 more times ― “bet against Pelosi.”
Her steadfast opposition to Trump’s demand for billions of dollars for a border wall may well be “proving her Democratic skeptics wrong,” as The New Republic wrote two days ago.
Yet it was thousands of federal workers, facing a second missed paycheck as the shutdown stretched into a 35th day, who stopped showing up to work and put the real pressure on Trump. On Friday the Transportation Security Administration reported its national rate of unscheduled absences surged to 7.6 percent from 3 percent a year earlier. A shortage of air traffic controllers briefly halted flights to LaGuardia Airport in New York City and delayed flights to Philadelphia International Airport and New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport.
The absences were a daring — if officially uncoordinated — labor action. The National Labor Relations Act gives American workers the right to strike but does not extend that right to government workers. President Jimmy Carter enacted legislation to prohibit federal workers from striking, as The New York Times noted. President Ronald Reagan gave the statute teeth; when air traffic controllers went on strike in 1981, he ordered them to return to work and fired them when they didn’t.
The uptick in workers calling out this week was no coincidence. In a fiery statement, Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said air safety professionals were “fatigued, worried, and distracted” as they carried out “unbelievably heroic work even as they are betrayed by the government that employs them.”
“So the planes will stay on the ground,” she said. “Do we have your attention now, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell? All lawmakers? Open the government and then get back to the business of democracy and discuss whatever issue you so choose.”
A separate statement from the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the Air Line Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA excoriated lawmakers for creating a public safety threat by leaving workers unpaid.
“In our risk averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break,” the statement read.
Just two days ago, the National Transportation Safety Board told CNN of 87 accidents have not been investigated since the shutdown began. According to Larry Willis, the president of the Transportation Trades Department with the AFL-CIO, more than 1,800 air safety workers quit over the past month to find new jobs.
“They have a legal prohibition against strike. The unions did not violate that … but they were correct in pointing out that workers were going to leave the industry,” he said by phone Friday. “They had to find ways to put food on the table, and at some point that was going to cause positions to go unfilled. That’s exactly what you started to see over the last several days.”
Beyond the aviation industry workers, federal employees spoke out about the hardship they were facing because of the shutdown, having to look for new jobs and forgo essentials. Their willingness to tell their stories raised essential public awareness about the real-life consequences of Washington games.
To her credit, Pelosi seemed to see that for what it was. On Thursday, responding to billionaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ widely criticized remarks urging federal workers to take out loans to make up missed paychecks, she said, “Is this the ‘Let them eat cake’ kind of attitude? Or ‘Call your father for money’? ‘This is character building for you’?”