Michael Meeropol: Support For TSA Workers Who Call In Sick

Jan 16, 2019

I am sure virtually all listeners to this commentary are disgusted by Trump as he holds hundreds of thousands of federal workers hostage to his demand for $5 billion to build part of his ”wall” on the southern border.  On January 12, the shutdown became the longest in history.  The amount of damage being done to our fellow citizens in terms of lost income (government contractors) deferred income (government workers), lost services (people in Section 8 housing who stand to lose their HUD rent subsidies and food stamp recipients), deferred income while being forced to work without compensation (“essential” government workers)--- ALL of those costs are horrifying.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much any of us can do.  Yes, we can write letters to members of Congress and our Senators urging support for the efforts to reopen the government without appropriating anything for Trump’s bogus wall.   Yes, we can, if we live in state or district represented by a Republican, join a local indivisible group to pressure them to stand up to Trump and vote like patriots instead of marching off the cliff with him like automaton soldiers.   We can also get involved in political campaigns either for Senate or the Presidency aiming at the 2020 elections.

But all of these actions, no matter how valuable, have long time horizons.  Meanwhile, tenants in Section 8 housing will be in danger of eviction.  Government workers will be missing paychecks.   Food stamp recipients will be in danger of losing benefits.

So far, the individuals directly affected by the shutdown seem to be the only ones who are truly enraged.   Too many of our fellow citizens can turn away and say, “Not my problem.”   Some even may have bought the anti-government rhetoric that suggests that government workers have it easier than the rest of us.

Certainly we have heard pundits --- especially on the US version of Soviet era radio Moscow --- alias Fox News --- that government workers have better pensions than the rest of us – have cushier jobs than the rest of us, etc. etc.   That divide-and-conquer tactic worked in states like Wisconsin where the Legislature stripped union rights from government workers.   Too many private sector workers failed to support their government employee brethren and, as a result, Governor Scott Walker, the leader of the union-stripping moveent in Wisconsin, beat back a recall effort and then won re-election in 2014.  (Of course, Wisconsin citizens finally got rid of him last November.)

I believe it is time to see if the rest of us will stand together with the government workers affected by the shutdown as well as with those people whose benefits will be affected.   It’s time to embrace SOLIDARITY – the most important word in any struggle.   The solidarity principle adopts an important slogan from the labor movement – “an injury to one is an injury to all.”  It stands in direct contrast to the view of human nature propounded by my profession, economics.  Students of economics are taught from the very moment they enter their first class that individuals are motivated by “self-interest.”   As a result, all their activity is aimed at “maximizing” their personal satisfaction.   They try to expend as little effort as possible to gain as much as possible – whether that which they wish to gain is income, respect, power, etc.   The point driven home to all students of economics is that individual self-interest is the key to human motivation. 

(An interesting study once found that students who major in economics behave more selfishly than students who choose to study other disciplines!)

In fact, the economists’ view of human nature is total nonsense.  It may make sense to adopt it as a simplifying assumption in assessing behavior in certain economic situations (such as how a business will be motivated to cut costs and maximize revenue) but as a general principle of what makes humans tick, it is just dead wrong.  Human beings, in fact, are a COOPERATING species.  The highly individualistic stories of how a particular person got ahead in life are fictions.   Every individual who succeeded in life had lots of help --- educational institutions, family connections, mentors, government provided infrastructure, basic health care --- When the Africans say “it takes a village to raise a child” they know what they are talking about.   If you can read this commentary, thank a teacher and a school system – you didn’t do that all by yourself!!!

(When President Obama made the perfectly legitimate comment that because of the existence of infrastructure and education no individual built a small business “by him or herself” the Republicans erupted in righteous indignation and had all sorts of small business owners carrying signs saying “I built it by myself.”   This is just another example of the departure from reality of too many of our fellow citizens.   Virtually no owners of small business personally built the road that their raw materials travel to get to them --- nor did they string the power lines that brought them electricity.)

So in my opinion, solidarity is much more important than individualism.   And we really need that solidarity now that Trump is holding the economy and government workers and so many others hostage for his wall.

Wouldn’t it be great if the leaders of civic organizations, religious organizations, political organizations and very specifically the leaders of organized labor were to publicly proclaim that they are collecting millions of dollars nationwide to be used as a strike fund to support all TSA workers – the first line of defense against terrorists --- who choose to call in sick rather than continue to work for free.   This is where the rest of us do have an important role to play, even if we are not government workers.  We need to loudly proclaim support for TSA workers who refuse to subsidize Trump’s shutdown with their unpaid labor.

This same principle also applies to Air Traffic Controllers.   In fact, with controllers all working for no pay, the stress level as they make split second life and death decisions on runway approaches and clearing planes for takeoff, might reach the breaking point.   I would expect more and more controllers will also start calling in sick.

If enough TSA workers and air traffic controllers do not show up for work, airlines will have to start cancelling flights.   If people not directly affected by the shutdown have not yet been moved to demand that the government re-open, perhaps a few cancelled flights will concentrate their minds.

It would be difficult for TSA workers to do this on their own.  If it actually appeared that they were organizing the sick-outs they might even be subject to sanctions for engaging in “illegal strike activity” --- which could cost them their jobs.   Back in 1981, Ronald Reagan earned high marks for breaking an Air Traffic Controllers strike.  Instead of negotiating with them, he took advantage of the fact that their strike was illegal and fired all those who wouldn’t go back to work.   The strikebreakers were joined by military air traffic controllers and a crash program to train new ones was created.   Unfortunately for the labor movement, airline pilots did not refuse to fly.   They could have – all they had to do was say the skies were unsafe and they wouldn’t fly until the controllers were all back on the job.   But self-interest beat out solidarity and the result was that decades of anti-union activity was initiated in the wake of Reagan’s success in breaking the strike.  The percentage of workers in unions continued to decline over the decade of the 1980s.

I think Trump would be hard pressed to go after TSA workers today --- especially if they were backed by a large pre-existing strike fund publicly supported by organized labor and lots of civic groups.   The controllers union has filed a lawsuit against the administration but that issue will take years to resolve.   I put my money on TSA personnel as the potential weapon to force the government re-opening.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

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