In Friday's meeting with Congressional leadership, Donald Trump hilariously called the ongoing partial government shutdown a "strike" and implied that he was using government workers as leverage to get his border wall funded. Channeling Marie Antoinette, he threatened that he was willing to let this stalemate continue for "years," as though government employees have enough desire or enough of a financial cushion to hold out that long. Nearly 80% of American workers live paycheck to paycheck, according to multiple studies, so a government worker revolt is likely to happen much sooner - say after January 11, when the first missing paycheck will hit.
Trump feels free to use government employees as leverage because he thinks that they are mostly Democrats, and because one of his chief goals is to dismantle the administrative state.
First things first: the government shutdown is not a strike. Employees are being forced either to stay home, or, for essential workers like those at the Transportation Security Agency, to work without pay. This situation is a lockout for the former group, and something more akin to indentured servitude for the latter. The union representing these workers, the American Federation of Government Employees, is prohibited by law from going on strike, and is suing the administration for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Trump feels free to use government employees as leverage because he thinks that they are mostly Democrats, and because one of his chief goals is to dismantle the administrative state. He has spoken admiringly of President Andrew Jackson's firing of a tenth of the federal workforce, and bragged to his first joint session of Congress that he instituted a hiring freeze. A prolonged shutdown helps to further this goal with a wave of exits from exasperated employees, from jobs that may go unfilled thereafter. Thus, appeals to Trump to compromise on wall funding due to the harm to workers are less likely to work than say, appeals to Trump based on the harm to the economy.
Trump is not likely to care much about the economic impact of shuttered parks and museums. But he is likely to care very much when air travel grinds to a halt: the TSA is currently facing worker shortages from mass 'sick outs,' as employees take sick leave to work part-time jobs or watch their kids. Long delays hit New York's LaGuardia airport on Sunday, and it wasn't pretty. Beyond the major headache to weary travelers, well-heeled businesspeople, and journalists like Andrea Mitchell, there are worse consequences ahead. Imagine if several major airports were forced to close entirely due to a lack of security staffing. The implications for national security, for our economy.
Television pundits have been stumped as to who will cave first, Trump or Speaker Pelosi, as they both appear hardened in opposition. The media surmise the stalemate could last months, but they are leaving out a critical source of pressure from the equation: labor. If the shutdown continues through Friday, when workers will miss their first paycheck, the sick outs will no doubt explode. It will be a de facto strike, and Trump will learn the word's true meaning.