First They Came for the Federal Workers…

The GOP government shutdown prefigures an attack on the working class.

Mariya Strauss

The United States Capitol Building was closed to visitors today, as the government shutdown took effect. (Creative Commons)

My part­ner, a fed­er­al work­er, is locked out of his job because the Tea Par­ty Cau­cus wants more spend­ing cuts. By strand­ing 800,000 fed­er­al employ­ees with­out pay, the bil­lion­aire-backed frac­tion of Congress’s extreme right wing is send­ing a clear mes­sage: they are not account­able to any work­ing Amer­i­cans, and they are com­ing for all of our jobs.

Rather than assum­ing that fed­er­al work­ers and their fam­i­lies will recov­er quick­ly from the lock­out, oth­er work­ing fam­i­lies would do well to sit up and pay atten­tion to what is hap­pen­ing to us dur­ing this shut­down. Cut­ting off wages to fed­er­al employ­ees and their fam­i­lies, shut­ter­ing nation­al parks and halt­ing rou­tine work­place safe­ty and mine safe­ty inspec­tions — all these com­prise mere­ly an open­ing gam­bit. Because the Repub­li­cans’ like­ly next move is to refuse to raise the nation’s debt lim­it, the strug­gle to make do with less will impact every­one in much more per­ma­nent ways if we don’t take action now to resist the lock­out of fed­er­al workers.

As we have seen from the sequester, which prompt­ed bud­get cuts to Head Start, Meals on Wheels and oth­er pro­grams that help a wide range of vul­ner­a­ble Amer­i­cans, the Repub­li­cans are pre­pared to injure a large num­ber of peo­ple to get what they want. And what they want is what the cor­po­ra­tions and indi­vid­u­als who fund­ed their cam­paigns want: aus­ter­i­ty spend­ing cuts, tax cuts for the rich, perks for fos­sil fuel indus­tries, cuts to women’s health care and food stamps, and the like. (ThinkProgress help­ful­ly rounds up the full list here.)

As we have seen from the sequester, which prompted budget cuts to Head Start, Meals on Wheels and other programs that help a wide range of vulnerable Americans, the Republicans are prepared to injure a large number of people to get what they want.

An exam­ple of one fam­i­ly they don’t mind hurt­ing is my own. My hus­band works full-time at a fed­er­al agency; I work part-time as a free­lancer and par­ent our two kids. We own our home and have health insur­ance, but we live pay­check to pay­check and we come up short in pay­ing bills more often than not. With­out his pay­check, we will like­ly have to apply for a mod­i­fi­ca­tion on our mort­gage loan, or cut back on pay­ing for the child care that allows me to do my work.

It might strike some as odd to be defend­ing gov­ern­ment work­ers. The pub­lic per­cep­tion that gov­ern­ment employ­ees are over­paid and lazy has roots in the Rea­gan wel­fare queen” nar­ra­tive, and Repub­li­cans are trad­ing on that per­cep­tion in order to attack these work­ers with impuni­ty. As Philip Bump not­ed in the Atlantic back in March, In con­ser­v­a­tive cir­cles, that con­cept — that some decent per­cent­age of gov­ern­ment pay­ment recip­i­ents are lazy free­load­ers — has been extend­ed to gov­ern­ment employ­ees.” In oth­er words, Repub­li­cans are count­ing on those who may sub­sist on less than we do, or who have expe­ri­enced house­hold calami­ties as a result of the reces­sion, to be fine with see­ing us suf­fer through a lock­out and miss a mort­gage pay­ment or maybe have to take our tod­dler out of day­care. Our fam­i­ly has been through tough times in the past, and know that it is dif­fi­cult not to resent those who appear to have more sta­bil­i­ty or cash. But view­ing one anoth­er as oth­er,” or as an accept­able tar­get for aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures (mea­sures that are root­ed in a less gov­ern­ment” ide­ol­o­gy instead of eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty) is just what the Repub­li­cans want from all of us. It dis­tracts us from the dam­age they are prepar­ing to cause.

As the fam­i­lies of the 800,000 locked-out fed­er­al work­ers, we are the canaries in the coal mine of right-wing aus­ter­i­ty. Even if the Repub­li­cans retreat, they are set­ting the place up to explode; the fate of fed­er­al work­ers will serve as an exam­ple of what’s to come. The loom­ing fight over the debt lim­it, which the gov­ern­ment has until Octo­ber 17 to raise, will spread the hurt of the gov­ern­ment shut­down to a much wider swathe of the pop­u­la­tion. Hit­ting the debt ceil­ing would impose a 32 per­cent fed­er­al spend­ing cut. It would also mean default­ing on some nation­al debts, since the Trea­sury would no longer be able to bor­row in order to meet its oblig­a­tions — such as pay­ing out Social Secu­ri­ty checks to seniors and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. A recent arti­cle in the Atlantic explains that this lev­el of cut­ting would dam­age all of us in ways that are not pre­cise­ly pre­dictable but are nonethe­less pre­dictably bad. With­out exag­ger­at­ing the risk, one can imag­ine: fed­er­al jobs dis­ap­pear­ing into thin air, tak­ing with them the con­sumer spend­ing that keeps busi­ness­es oper­at­ing in com­mu­ni­ties; a mas­sive wave of defaults on house­hold debt trig­gered by job loss­es and a spike in short-term inter­est rates; and many more fam­i­lies (espe­cial­ly chil­dren) made home­less and food-insecure.

It is an out­rage that House Repub­li­cans are will­ing to use the well-being of all work­ing fam­i­lies as a bar­gain­ing chip to get what they want. How­ev­er, it’s not par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­pris­ing, giv­en that Tea Par­ty Repub­li­cans have had their cam­paigns fund­ed large­ly by bil­lion­aires like real estate mag­nate Howie Rich and glob­al indus­try tycoon broth­ers Charles and David Koch, and they see them­selves as rep­re­sent­ing the bil­lion­aires’ inter­ests in Washington.

More­over, based on past prac­tices, it’s like­ly that their cor­po­rate fun­ders have promised them lob­by­ist jobs with incomes in the mid-six fig­ures when they leave office, in exchange for cut­ting gov­ern­ment spend­ing and ful­fill­ing an indus­try-friend­ly wish list. Thus, the House Repub­li­cans who are mak­ing demands in exchange for not det­o­nat­ing the US econ­o­my may see them­selves as account­able to their for­mer cam­paign fun­ders and future boss­es, not to their con­stituents. This would explain why they are will­ing to take such dra­con­ian mea­sures to ensure their agen­da moves forward.

For­tu­nate­ly, there is some­thing we can do. Peo­ple are already tak­ing action to resist the Repub­li­can hostage-tak­ers, and every­one can par­tic­i­pate. Oppor­tu­ni­ties include: shar­ing the AFL-CIO’s online mes­sage exhort­ing Repub­li­cans to Get a Grip;” attend­ing local demon­stra­tions in sup­port of gov­ern­ment work­ers; call­ing and writ­ing to mem­bers of Con­gress and the Pres­i­dent; and par­tic­i­pat­ing in anti-aus­ter­i­ty actions that may soon take place local­ly around the coun­try. One AFL-CIO staffer assured me this morn­ing that they are com­pil­ing a data­base of planned actions around the coun­try, so you can stay tuned to their web­site for details. Amer­i­can work­ers must not suc­cumb to the belief that they are immune from gov­ern­ment fund­ing cuts just because they are not fed­er­al­ly employed. This is all one fight, and we are all going to need each other.

UPDATE: The AFL-CIO has put togeth­er this click­able map of ral­lies, march­es and demon­stra­tions planned all around the coun­try for issues from end­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down to immi­gra­tion reform (this Sat­ur­day, Octo­ber 5, will be a big day to show sup­port for that) to rais­ing the min­i­mum wage. Groups of peo­ple demand­ing ratio­nal action from Con­gress on any of these issues could help tip the bal­ance back toward a func­tion­ing gov­ern­ment. If you know of an action or ral­ly being planned in your area that isn’t on this map, click on the Add a Local Action” but­ton at the far right and fol­low the instructions.

Mariya Strauss is a writer who lives in Baltimore.
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