The Unions and the Democratic Base Won the Shutdown, Not Pelosi

Politics Features Government Shutdown
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The Unions and the Democratic Base Won the Shutdown, Not Pelosi

The shortest, simplest version of the story could be written this way: Trump badly miscalculated by causing the shutdown. Two important airline unions called for a strike. The President backed down.

On MLK Day, Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants, said:

“Almost a million workers are locked out or being forced to work without pay. Others are going to work when our workspace is increasingly unsafe. What is the Labor Movement waiting for? ... We can do this. Together. Si se puede. Every gender, race, culture, and creed. The American Labor Movement. We have the power.”

What I've just related is a simple, factual account of last week. But as any reading of history will tell you, the plain documentary record never gives the whole story. Context is king.

This is how history works. “The real war will never get in the books,” Walt Whitman wrote of the Civil War. And it's true. So much of what makes a moment historic is found in the context.

For instance: take FDR's First Hundred Days. Legendary right? You can Wikipedia up a list of the legislation passed. Thirteen major bills, and countless small changes. But if that's all you learn—the names of laws—you wouldn't get a real sense of what those words meant; how they embodied the hopes progressives had been championing for decades; how the first three months of the New Deal turned America upside down. How those laws reversed a century-and-a-half of cruel economic doctrine. How the American conservative movement, for the rest of the 20th century, existed to fight back against those Hundred Days. If you simply attended to the details, the rest would be lost. You'd know the name of every tree and miss the forest.

And that's what happened here. To quote the title of Joseph Heller's forgotten novel, “Something Happened.” We all felt it. The sundowning of the shutdown ended with a whimper, but it felt like a bang. The rest of the political world, including the press (who should have known better) rushed to give all credit to Pelosi. Eric Levitz, of New York magazine, saw correctly:

For five weeks, congressional Republicans had withheld paychecks from hundreds of thousands of civil servants, prevented cancer patients from accessing much-needed medical care, jeopardized food stamp recipients' access to basic nutrition, undermined public health, devastated Native American communities, and sabotaged America's (supposedly sacred) border security — because doing so was slightly more convenient for Mitch McConnell than the alternative. But on Friday, that changed — because the men and women who control America's air traffic and attend to its airline passengers made it change. After weeks of unpaid labor, America's (already underfunded and understaffed) air traffic controllers finally brought the shutdown home, calling out sick in numbers large enough to grind airports across the Eastern seaboard to a halt. .... The Flight Attendant Union struck a sharper note. “Do we have your attention now Leader McConnell?” the union asked in its statement. “The shutdown must end immediately.”

A closer study reveals that Pelosi, like Schumer, was merely obeying the revved-up mandate of the Democratic base. Had it been left up to the leadership, I believe they would have caved a week into the shutdown. But the base wouldn't let them. All the credit should go, then, to two groups. First, the unions of America. In the age of Trump, the labor movement is rediscovering its strength. The earlier strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma prove my point.

The unions won the shutdown. Second, the mobilized Dem base—fervent, rabidly progressive, and uncompromising. The same base that elected AOC, Rashida Tlaib, and a dozen other honest-to-God agents of change to the Congress; the same base that is pushing corporate Dems out of the party; the same base that will deny the Clinton machine another go at the nomination.

American media spends too much attention on the MAGA movement and Trump's dwindling, aging, prosperous base. The far-right white nationalism of the modern GOP is an eye-catching story. But in their rush to normalize the forces of Trump, the media missed a far more important narrative: the emergence of an empowered, growing, government-toppling left.

The rise of this movement goes beyond merely electoral politics. The resurgent populist left can be seen in the hundreds of Indivisible chapters that have sprouted up across America, in the record numbers of women running for, and winning, office. It can be seen in the progressive politicization of American millennials. The conservative movement began losing the young during the age of Bush, and have continued to shed them in ungodly numbers under Trump.

Most of all, we can see the rise of the American left in the fierce, unstoppable return of militant labor. It's a necessary counterbalance in this grotesque era of gilded wealth.

Historians keep reminding me that the agitation in the heartland is an echo of how the conservative resurgence happened in the '70s. Forty years ago, the Democrats had control of every branch of government. They looked set to reign forever. But a conservative upheaval happened at the margins: a tax revolt in California, busing protests, rallies against the Equal Rights Amendment, and soon liberalism was on the defensive.

In this last election, Orange County, the home-base of modern conservatism, went blue. Miracles and wonders abounded.

The shutdown didn't have to happen, but the president did it anyway, for the same reason he's pushed anything in his presidency: ego and cluelessness. What the Court Packing Plan was to Franklin Roosevelt, the Shutdown Defeat will be Trump: the moment that power began to run back to Congress. The shutdown affected 800,000 federal workers across America. It put a lie to most of the claims Trump made about himself and his presidency. It showed his incompetence at dealmaking—as if we needed any more proof.

And there was no reason for it, besides the Orangeman's fool pride. What is Trump's harvest from those 35 days? Agitated workers, an activated opposition, and a pissed-off Republican base.

Trump has given progressivism a generous gift. Without the president's bungling, the unions would not have been able to display such obvious power. Or the right cue. Prior to the strike, a number of pundits and commentators wondered: Why weren't airline-related unions striking? As Matt Christman discussed on Chapo Trap House, striking was the ideal response, and the logical one. The TSA workers weren't getting paid. Going for broke would scare the absolute hell out of the country.

Striking just made too much sense. The power was there, waiting to be picked up. Air travel cornerstones our society. It's the chokehold of an entire civilization, and political dynamite. Seizing control of the airports—shutting them down, effectively—means grabbing hold of the economic bloodflow of the country. Airports are all but designed to be political, social, and security chokepoints. They were used that way last week.

The historian and writer Corey Robin summed up the End of the Shutdown perfectly, and positioned it in the proper context. In a Facebook post, he wrote “It looks like my historical trifecta is now complete.”

The modern GOP launched its first successful salvo against the Democratic Party with charges that the Dems wanted “socialized medicine.” Trump's first major defeat came over his effort to repeal the ACA. The second successful salvo of the GOP against the Dems was the charge of “twenty years of treason” because of alleged ties between the Democrats and the Russians. (A version of that got repeated in the late 1970s over the Team B report.) The second source of Trump's weakness has been his ties to the Russians. And then a third, and final, GOP victory came in 1981, when Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers' union. Well look at the two unions that brought Trump down now: air traffic controllers and flight attendants.

What's more, the strikes and Trump's defeat occurred during an unusually busy week for politics. It was as if fate had set up events to demonstrate the waning of American conservative power specifically, and the unraveling of the Washington consensus generally. Roger Stone's humiliating arrest was merely the most visible symbol. The waves of change were felt everywhere.

While the air unions were dictating policy to Trump, and the teachers' unions were winning in Los Angeles, the media giant BuzzFeed gutted a huge chunk of its hard-working staff. BuzzFeed's success, and its recently increased stature, is due largely to the untiring work done by its rank-and-file journalists. Incidentally, this was the same staff who'd been told by the company CEO that they didn't need a union.

I asked Doug Henwood, a contributing editor at The Nation, what he thought about the events of the week. He noted that the Trump cave-in showed “the power of the working class to shut shit down. The transportation and logistics sectors are so vulnerable. They could shut things down in a day or two.”

I asked him why this was happening now. There was a feeling in the air, I said: the fever breaking on the Trump Presidency, Ocasio-Cortez being elected, the shift in the Democratic base away from Clintonism. “Maybe it’s just a bill of forty years coming due,” I wrote. Trump’s election showed the old order had cracked, but so much had been going on under the surface. The air unions were the manifestation of something deeper.

“And since this was all spontaneous/wildcat Trump couldn’t fire them,” Henwood told me. “A lot of people have just fucking had it.” There hadn’t been anything like this in decades, he added.

Yes, it’s been a while, as the band Staind once said. But seeing the strange wonders of the past week was like watching a long-comatose body return to life. A jerk of the hand here, a twitch of the foot there. What’s the boundary between sleep and waking? Hard to say. The longest shutdown in American history ended. The culprit got called on his bullshit. And it wasn’t just the government that got restarted. The last part of January is when we begin to hope for the finish to a long cold. George R. R. Martin got it backwards: Winter is going.

More from Government Shutdown