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The War on Public Workers


The government shutdown engineered by the Republican tea party zealots in the House of Representatives is headed into its third week. The damage is spreading. Infants go without nutrition. Children are locked out of pre-school programs. Scientists are losing support and locking up labs.

The people taking the biggest hit, of course, are public employees — the workers who serve the American people. Some 800,000 of them were initially furloughed without pay. Ironically, those deemed the most essential are paying the highest price.

“Essential” government employees are now, as Jeffrey David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told me on my radio show, essentially “indentured servants.” They’re forced to work without pay. About half of AFGE’s 670,000 members are deemed “essential.” They are required to work, and face disciplinary action if they don’t. But they aren’t getting paid and won’t be until the shutdown ends and Congress decides to vote them retroactive pay.

These employees include nurses, food inspectors, janitors, firefighters and more. Most are not big earners. They have to buy food and gas, pay rent or mortgages, keep electricity and heat on. Most have to pay to get to work and back — in gas, in mass transit fees, in parking. They are drawing down savings or going into debt just to keep going.

This is unacceptable. We all benefit from dedicated and skilled public servants. They work for us. And now we’re punishing them, and no doubt, driving the best out of government. When private employers forced people to work without pay, it was called slavery.

As this is written, reports suggest that Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell are close to an agreement. But House tea party Republicans continue to oppose a settlement. Shutting down the government has undermined America’s reputation across the world. Defaulting on our debts threatens a global financial meltdown. The time for these games has long past.

It’s time for a vote. A Senate deal can end a filibuster; an end to the shutdown would pass the Senate. That will put pressure on House Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote in the House. The reality in this standoff is that a majority of legislators in both the House and Senate would support reopening the government and lifting the debt ceiling to avoid default.

In the House, a resolution would have to be passed with Democratic votes joined by a likely minority of Republican votes. In the Senate, the Democratic majority can pass it on their own, if Republicans stop filibustering it. It’s time for the majority to act.

For Boehner, allowing a vote may risk his position as speaker, as tea party Republicans would accuse him of surrendering. For Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, ending the filibuster would aggravate the zealots, and possibly strengthen the tea party challenge to him in the Republican primary for his Senate seat. But it is long past time for both to stop cowering and start leading.

Scorn for bureaucracy and government is a long-standing American tradition. But perhaps this shutdown will help people realize that we have a huge stake in an effective and efficient government. We should show far more respect for those we employ with our tax dollars. They are like all workers. They struggle to support their families. They go to work every day. Many live paycheck to paycheck, while laboring to put aside a little money to pay for their children’s education. Few can afford to work without pay and none should be forced to do so.

Shutting down the government and punishing the people who work for us should be unacceptable to all those who care about this country.

Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.

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