GOP shutdown tactics will cause "involuntary servitude," union says

Top federal workers' union blasts House GOP as immoral hostage-takers, and urges Obama not to lose his nerve

Published September 30, 2013 7:29PM (EDT)

Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz                                      (AP/Steven Senne/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz (AP/Steven Senne/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Hours before a looming government shutdown, the president of the country’s largest federal employee union accused House Republicans of forcing “involuntary servitude,” urged President Obama not to “bargain with hostage-takers,” and pledged to oppose any deal with further cuts to federal workers’ compensation.

American Federation of Government Employees president J. David Cox told Salon Monday afternoon that it was “immoral” and “unconscionable” for House Republicans to try to “close the government down and punish everybody in this country” because they “don’t want 48 million people to have the opportunity to purchase health insurance.”

“The House of Representatives is choosing to lock out a number of its employees from providing services to the American people,” charged Cox. Noting that perhaps half of AFGE’s membership deemed “essential” staff would continue working without the guarantee of getting paid, Cox said, “I am certainly not an expert in the law, but under the Constitution I do believe involuntary servitude is not allowed.”

Cox described the legal distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” personnel as untenable, given that the efforts of the former often depend on those of the latter. “Most of the people that support the military will be furloughed …” said Cox. “So our troops will start running out of supplies, they will run out of parts.” Cox told Salon, “You can’t run the government if you don’t run the Department of Defense. It’s going to cripple the military.” Cox, a licensed practical nurse, warned that a shutdown could also “have a severe effect” upon disabled veterans already in “a sad state of affairs.”

Asked about a GOP bill passed unanimously committing to continue sending military personnel paychecks during a shutdown, Cox answered, “I stand with the president: You fund the government or you don’t fund the government … When you start picking and choosing, then that becomes a nightmare approach to funding the government.”

In a Sunday statement quoted by Politico, Speaker John Boehner charged that by not holding a vote that day, Senate Democratic leaders were “deliberately bringing the nation to the brink of a government shutdown for the sake of raising taxes on seniors’ pacemakers and children’s hearing aids and plowing ahead with the train wreck that is the president’s healthcare law.” Obama said Monday that he was “eager to have negotiations around a long-term budget,” but that “the only way to do that is for everyone to sit down in good faith, without threatening to harm women and veterans and children with a government shutdown. And certainly we can’t have any kind of meaningful negotiations under the cloud of potential default…”

Cox told Salon that he wished President Obama had “stood a little firmer” in past budget showdowns with the GOP, and that “he needs to stand very, very firm” now. “The president doesn’t need to bargain anymore,” said Cox. He specifically urged Obama to reject any further pay freeze or benefit cuts for the federal workforce. “He has told us he is not going to bargain further about our pay and benefits,” said the AFGE president. “Federal employees have given $122 billion to [reduce] the federal deficit. No other group of workers in this country have contributed so much. It’s time to look somewhere else if you want more money.” Obama sent a letter to congressional leaders last month stating his intention to give federal workers a 1 percent raise starting Jan. 1.

Cox said his union would oppose any deal to avert or end a shutdown that included further pay or benefit concessions by federal workers. Asked whether he expected the AFL-CIO to do the same, Cox said he wouldn’t speak for federation president Rich Trumka, “but I would just about be assured they would.”

“Obviously we were displeased with the two-year pay freeze, but we sucked that up,” said Cox. “Then when it went to a three-year pay freeze, we said clearly enough is enough. We are not interested in a four-year pay freeze.”

Cox predicted that, like its predecessor 18 years ago, a shutdown could last for a few weeks. But he argued that, as in 1995-’96, the GOP would face increasing public outrage as federal workers remain locked out of their jobs. “As the week went along,” said Cox, “when no one could get a passport, ports couldn’t operate, all the various things were coming to a screeching halt, veterans couldn’t get healthcare, veterans’ benefits couldn’t be processed, new Social Security claims couldn’t be processed, people started saying … ‘Wait a minute, we miss these services that the federal government provides.’”

Cox told Salon that a lockout of a few weeks would bring “such gross pain” on Americans that they would punish Republicans in the ballot box in this year’s Virginia governor’s race and next year’s midterm elections. “Does anybody feel it immediately?” said Cox. “No, but it takes hold and people starting feeling it.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Affordable Care Act Gop Government Shutdown Labor Obamacare