Daily Labor Report®

Suffering ‘PTSD’ From Shutdown, Unions Gird for Next One

March 18, 2019, 10:24 AM

Labor unions are already preparing for another government shutdown after the last one that began in December and lasted 35 days caught so many by surprise, union leaders told Bloomberg Law.

“We have PTSD from this history,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told Bloomberg Law. “There will be more urgency from aviation unions” the next time there’s a shutdown threat, said Nelson, whose union represents about 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines. Nelson made headlines earlier this year when she said unions would “ground” the U.S. aviation system if necessary to protect the public from the dangers posed by a government shutdown.

A new government shutdown could begin as early as Oct. 1 if Congress and President Donald Trump can’t agree on fiscal year 2020 funding. This appears more likely after Trump called for $8.6 billion for a Southern border wall in his FY 2020 budget proposal—even more than the $5.6 billion he sought for the wall for FY 2019.

About 800,000 federal employees were either told not to work or forced to work without getting paid on time during the most recent shutdown, out of a total civilian workforce of roughly 2.1 million employees.

A second shutdown in 2019 was narrowly averted in mid-February when Congress sent Trump a funding measure to keep the government open through Sept. 30. Nelson said Feb. 11 that unions would “ground” the U.S. aviation system if the government were to close again after Feb. 15, which appeared to be a possibility at the time. Four days later, when air traffic controller absences caused La Guardia Airport in New York to cancel flights, Trump signed the bill even though it didn’t have border wall funding he wanted.

“The pressure and the extra stress caused by the shutdown was intense. We need to make sure this never happens again, not at the end of the current fiscal year and not ever after that,” Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told Bloomberg Law.

The White House and its Office of Management and Budget declined to comment for this story.

‘We Could Be in the Same Place’

Several bills were introduced in Congress this year to prevent future government funding lapses, but there isn’t any urgency to act on them now that the memory of the most recent shutdown is receding, Justin Bogie, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Bloomberg Law.

“We could be in the same place” this October, Bogie said. “The president’s budget calls for billions in border wall funding,” and “there’s no way” Democrats will agree to that, he said.

There are reasons to be concerned about a new shutdown, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, told Bloomberg Law.

“The problem is that in polling data there’s no lasting effect of the shutdown for either Trump or the Republicans,” he said. The president isn’t paying a political price for the previous shutdown, which means he may be more likely to risk a new one, Connolly said.

The best way to prevent a shutdown is for Congress to not vote on FY 2020 funding for the Department of Defense until the rest of the government is funded, according to Matt Biggs, secretary-treasurer at the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which like the AFA and NATCA is an AFL-CIO affiliate.

Congress for the FY 2019 funding cycle voted on DOD funding ahead of the rest of the government, Biggs said. Trump often emphasizes the need for a strong U.S. military, and providing defense funding first meant less leverage for those who wanted to avoid a shutdown, he said.

“If the DOD funding bill again passes before the other ones, the door is wide open for another government shutdown,” Biggs said.

Surprise Shutdown

The shutdown that began Dec. 22 was the third in calendar year 2018, Nelson and Biggs noted.

Two earlier shutdowns were short, including a three-day shutdown that included a weekend in January, and a shutdown that began at midnight and lasted about nine hours in February. The December shutdown began after Trump, presented with legislation from the Republican-led Senate to keep the government open, declined to sign the bill after earlier indicating that he would sign it.

“Nobody thought it would happen, and nobody thought it would go on,” Nelson said.

The difference the next time there’s the threat of a funding lapse is that aviation unions “will have a platform already built” to respond and hopefully head off a new shutdown, she said.

“People will be expecting to hear from us even before day one,” Nelson said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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