A call for a national general strike part 2: Times up for deferring MLK’s dream

Ballooning debt, stark income inequality, endless war and rampant racism are all hallmarks of the Trump nightmare

Published January 20, 2019 8:00AM (EST)

Yellow Vest protestors; Mount Rushmore (Getty/Salon)
Yellow Vest protestors; Mount Rushmore (Getty/Salon)

In the nation’s capital and across the country food pantries and soup kitchens are making special efforts to help feed the hundreds of thousands of Federal workers that have not been paid for a month in a shutdown instigated by Donald Trump that he threatened might last “months even years” if he does not get $5.7 billion to build a wall on our border with Mexico. 

On Saturday, for the second time in two weeks, Trump took to the airwaves and cast himself as the spaghetti-western protector-in-chief of a nation whose very existence was imperiled by a massive marauding migration of criminals from the south. He feigned an offer of compromise but he continued to insist that the only way to secure our border was with a  multi-billion dollar “powerful see-through steel barrier.” 

He slipped into that Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” persona of his that you could imagine him assuming just before he took aim and shot someone on Fifth Avenue. “As a candidate for President I promised I would fix the [immigration] crisis and I intend to keep that promise, one way or the other,” he said.

And, as always with Trump, the danger is not just from the violent gangs of immigrant rapists and murderers, but his political opponents that he casts as “the extreme voices who fear compromise and demand open borders which means drugs pouring in, human trafficking and a lotta crime.”  

Back in December, Trump told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer he would be “proud”  to shutdown the government if it meant he would get funding for the wall, that he originally pledged Mexico would pay for. But now, a month in, his shutdown is now putting an unconscionable strain on the very Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Coast Guard, and the Transportation Security Administration officers that have to protect the country’s borders and ports of entry.

Incredibly, with an emergency soup kitchen for federal employees just blocks away, he made no mention of this suffering workforce whose lives he has entirely upended. What’s lost here is that in addition to the workers, there are millions of adults and children who are linked to those paychecks who are also at risk.

Just like the legion of contractors and small business owners whose lives were ruined in the wake of his investments in Atlantic  City, they are invisible, collateral damage. This is not politics, it is a dangerous and reckless pathology. 

As this drags on it becomes increasingly apparent that  the billionaire Tom Steyer and the his need to Impeach Trump Now Movement  have it right but without Americans peacefully taking to the streets in large numbers, like the Yellow Vest movement in France, an impeachment movement won’t get traction and Trump could  stand for re-election.

It is an abomination that Trump’s cruel shutdown, that’s hurting the lowest paid Federal workers the most, should hit the one month mark on the day that as a nation we “celebrate” the Rev. Martin Luther King’s legacy, which includes his final campaign for striking municipal workers in Memphis.

Across the nation, in all fifty states and our territories, hundreds of thousands of Federal workers in the prisons, at the airports and even on the border, are working without being paid. If they fail to report for duty they face sanctions including termination.

In addition to the food bank support for the locked out workers, even  some of the regularly heartless utilities are offering forbearance for Federal workers. 

Governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo  have stepped up to help these workers access emergency assistance and expedited unemployment if they are eligible. Ironically, workers that are being forced to work without pay are not eligible for unemployment. 

These workers will need all the help they can get, despite the inane comments of right wing Trump whisperer Ann Coulter. They are performing often dangerous work  on salaries that are so low they can’t absorb what can be hundreds of dollars in weekly commutation costs without their paycheck. 

June Bencebi is a case manager at the Bureau of Prison’s Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and the treasurer for AFGE Local 205. “I had one officer tell me in tolls alone he pays  $400 a month from New Jersey and he’s not sure how long he can last,” Ms. Bencebi said. “We still have to come to work. I don’t know how we are going to be expected to come to work once we have no more funds. We have people that live all over — New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania . . . . ” 

As Barbara Ehrenreich, author of “Nickel and Dime: On (Not) Getting By In America”, pointed out on Democracy Now “the idea is you work for money, otherwise, it’s in violation of the 13th Amendment which bans involuntary servitude and slavery.”

It should not be lost on us that much of this Federal workforce is made up of women and people of color. 

There’s a post-Charlottesville logic that in 2019 we have a white supremacist in the White House and so many women and people of color working for free as we mark MLK Day, And it should come as no surprise that Trump’s enabler, Kentucky Senator and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has got the President’s back.

The need for a mass mobilization has been building for a long time and our electoral politics are not fast acting enough to relieve the nation and the world of the lunacy that’s in the White House.

“Daddy, or Mommy where were you when that dangerous person was running the country?”

The answer: “Well, I was waiting for 2020 to fix it,” won’t wash.

In our national elections in 2000 and 2016 the popular vote total meant nothing, even as billions in special interest money flooded our local, state and national politics. All we have to show for it is a huge national debt, a never ending war, a gerrymandered Congress, and  a vast income gap and wealth disparity.

And the Trump presidency embodies all of that and a general national strike is the best way to drive that home. In the first half of his term he and the GOP passed an obscene $1.5 trillion tax cut that WITH each passing day is revealed as a gift to the nation’s wealthiest families and biggest corporations. 

It accelerates wealth concentration and income disparity while generating crushing debt in the ‘out years’ to make it essential we cut social entitlements like Medicare and Social Security to balance the budget. That was no accident. These folks play a long game.

In addition to hurting Federal workers, that Trump reasons are Democrats, the secondary benefit  of an extended shutdown would increase the odds the Food Stamp program might collapse, thus achieving by executive fiat what he and the radical right GOP could not achieve legislatively.

Do you think Trump and Stephen Miller would be concerned that “sanctuary cities” like New York City will see their most vulnerable and poor and food insecure go hungry? 

We reached the nadir of this very public meltdown when Trump announced he was pulling the military jet that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress were going to use on their fact finding mission to Afghanistan. 

Trump’s unhinged move came in response to Speaker Pelosi when she suggested the postponement of the President’s State of the Union address over concerns that it would add a non-essential burden on the Federal employees who are not being paid, but would have to still secure the marquee event.

Now, Trumpence wants to create another branch of the military to wage war in space.  Add in the additional shadow cast by Trumpence’s global warming denial, and we should be feeling an even greater sense of urgency to hit the streets and make their ouster our burning priority. 

Hey, I know that big organized labor is paid really well in this country and that Reagan’s mass firing of the air traffic controllers still has them anxious about being too militant but if not now, when? 

It would be a mistake to count on the Robert Mueller calvary coming to clean up Dodge. We can’t sub this one out. The pretender-in-chief has got to go and we have to rise up and do it. 

Every day that Donald Trump’s despotic government shutdown continues without a national general strike is another missed opportunity for Americans to transform ourselves from victims of our history to the architects of it.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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