As we assess who is to blame for the shutdown, who won and who lost, the wall’s pluses and minuses, and possible outcomes for upcoming negotiations, let’s not forget a few things we can accurately say about the recent past. First, both the executive and legislative branches were willing to throw civil servants under the bus to gain leverage in their current impasse. Second, loss of trust in government’s good faith will endure. Third, using shutdowns to resolve funding issues does not work.
To comment briefly on number three, the cost imposed on government workers yields nothing in the negotiations. This shutdown was an experiment conducted by Trump, Pelosi, McConnell, and company: what happens if we do not pay workers for a month or more? Now we know. We also know the federal government treats its own employees with the same disregard it treats the rest of us.
In thirty days you made all of your experienced people disgruntled.
To comment briefly on number two, who wants to work for an employer who does not pay you? No one. Who wants to work for an employer who might stop paying you, without warning? Same answer. No matter how much seniority civil servants may have accumulated in the system, no matter how many benefits they may have accrued, in thirty days you made all of your experienced people disgruntled. They may not leave their jobs en masse, but their leaders have intentionally inflicted serious damage to their morale. You do not forget that kind of callousness.
The “What am I doing here?” question spreads. You wonder when the next shutdown comes, and whether it will affect you.
To comment briefly on number one, see comment on callousness. When you demonstrate lack of good faith, that is a type of betrayal. It raises questions like, “If my leaders treat me this way, what am I doing here?” Take the case of a soldier whose spouse is a civil servant. The soldier continues to receive a paycheck, his or her spouse does not. The “What am I doing here?” question spreads. You wonder when the next shutdown comes, and whether it will affect you. We have millions of people now who wonder why they ever associated themselves with an employer who treats them as if they don’t matter. If you want to see a large organization in early stages of disintegration, just turn your eyes toward Washington, DC.
I wrote this dialogue two weeks ago, as the shutdown moved past its halfway point.
We have security theater, congressional hearings theater, protest theater, theater theater, and now shutdown theater. How would you feel if you had a contract with your employer – family run business, say – that specifies compensation for your services. One day your employer shows up and says, “I had a fight with my wife last night, we can’t agree about a house she says we have to build. She says I can’t run payroll until we get this business with the house resolved.”
You say, “What?? We’ve got a contract here. I don’t give a goddamn what you and your wife are fighting about.”
“Sorry,” says the employer, “you can go home now, I’ll tell you when you can come back to work.”
“I have to pay my rent! What am I going to tell my landlord?”
“Tell him you’ll take out the garbage, do odd jobs. Maybe she’ll give you a break on the rent.”
“Like hell she will! She’ll replace me with someone who pays!”
“I really wish I could help you. My wife says she won’t back down.”
“Your wife and your house don’t have anything to do with the work I do for you. Pay me what you owe, or I quit.”
“You can’t quit. You have to submit a letter of resignation, and have it approved.”
“Where does it say that?”
“In your contract.”
“But you broke the contract!”
“I would call it a temporary interruption in pay. The contract is still in force.”
“So you want me to work without pay.”
“Until my wife and I work things out.”
“When is that?”
“We don’t know.”
“Give me a rough idea.”
“Could be a couple of weeks, could be a couple of months, could be years.”
“Yeah, I heard you: temporary interruption. Why should I work for you, under those circumstances?”
“Because you’re a proud member of the force.”
“Force? What force? You make me sound like a Marine.”
“We try to instill loyalty to the organization. Pride and loyalty.”
“You do that by not paying people?”
“Kind of shitty, isn’t it?”
“Look, you and your wife are just engaged in negotiating tactics. You’ve convinced yourselves that not paying your workers is okay.”
“Well now that the battle is joined, neither one of us can back down. If one of us loses, the balance of power shifts in our business, and in our family.”
“But it’s unethical to break a contract that’s not related to the conflict.”
“If you want ethics, you shouldn’t work for this company.”
“But you just told me about loyalty and pride.”
“Those are just words. What really counts is sticking it to your enemy. And getting the house you want.”
“You want to engage in a lockout so you can prevent your wife from building her dream house?”
“It’s not a lockout. You can come to work if you want.”
“You know you did the same crap less than a year ago. How long before people start to quit? Lots of people.”
“We’ll find new people.”
“That’s what you mean by loyalty.”
“You want us to work for free, but we’re all replaceable.”
“That’s right. Now, I have a credit union down the block that can loan you money for your rent. Would you like to borrow some money until I start to pay you again?”
“What are you going to charge me?”
“Eighteen percent? That’s more than a payday loan!”
“Take it, my friend. You have nowhere else to go.”
“You can shove your loan up your ass. I hope you and your wife enjoy your house.”
“Well we can’t enjoy it if you keep bothering me.”
“I understand. I’ll keep out of sight so you can run your business.”
“Thank you, friend. Best wishes with your job search.”
This report in The Guardian, End of shutdown: workers left with debts, bad credit and shattered trust, indicates the gulf between government leaders and their employees:
After calling the shutdown a “glitch”, the White House economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said employees working without pay were “volunteering”. Challenged on the term, given that employees who do not “volunteer” face losing their jobs, Kudlow said, “I’m not even going to go there. You know what I’m saying. It’s very clear …
“They do it because of their love for the country, the office of the presidency, and, uh, presumably their allegiance to President Trump, but whatever: they’re doing it.”
“I have no idea what this guy is talking about, and you can quote me,” said Erwin, the union president.
“First, federal employees declare an oath to protect the constitution. They work for the American people. They absolutely do not work for any one person, regardless of who it is.
“And about them being volunteers – these are not volunteers. This is compelled servitude. These people do not have a choice. They are absolutely being forced to work without pay indefinitely.”
Parrott, the BLM employee, said the pause in the shutdown was “great news” but added, “at the end of three weeks, what will we do when we are back at the same place? Not allowed to work and no income. The lack of leadership is scary. I hope they find a path forward.”