Leonard Pitts: ‘Redistribute the pain’ should be workers’ motto

Published 12:10 am Thursday, January 31, 2019

By Leonard Pitts

Next time, they should redistribute the pain.

That’s an expression Martin Luther King used — he credited Jesse Jackson — in the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike as he urged boycotts and other forms of economic coercion in support of the strikers. Those men had been suffering alone, he said. Now, let the whole town feel what they were going through.

Redistribute the pain.

As the 35-day federal government shutdown over Donald Trump’s demand for a $5.7 billion monument to white supremacy ends and the threat of a new one looms, maybe that should be the motto of 800,000 federal workers. The impact of the last shutdown, after all, was largely borne by them and their families. Yes, food stamp recipients worried about not receiving their benefits and tourists found national parks closed.

But many of us were relatively untouched. Traveling last week, I found airports from Baltimore to Albuquerque running smoothly, with TSA workers doing their jobs professionally and in good humor — even though they were not being paid for it.

The only sign of the shutdown was a group of air traffic controllers in Albuquerque imploring travelers to contact Congress on their behalf.

It seemed a mild and entirely reasonable response to the fact that they were being forced to work on the promise of pay — and never mind that utilities, banks and supermarkets do not accept promises as legal tender.

So maybe next time, federal workers ought to be a little less mild and a little less reasonable. Maybe next time, they should refuse.

Especially given that this White House has not a clue about the paycheck-to-paycheck lives of working people. Consider Trump telling us that federal workers can simply buy groceries on credit from their local supermarkets. And White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett saying they’ll be “better off” because they get a vacation without taking vacation days. And billionaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross saying he doesn’t “quite understand” why workers don’t just take out loans to tide them over.

Maybe he’ll understand better if they redistribute the pain. Yes, federal workers are prohibited by law from striking. On the face of it, that makes sense.

One would not want public safety held hostage to the whims of a corrupt labor leader.

But neither does one want public servants held hostage to the whims of a corrupt  political leader. More to the point, forcing people to work without pay is simply, inarguably and fundamentally wrong.

That’s why it’s heartening to see members of Congress floating legislative fixes. According to The Hill newspaper, one idea is to require that government funding continue at existing levels if lawmakers can’t meet their budget deadlines. In the event of a future shutdown, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy thinks Congress, too, should have to work without pay.

These are promising proposals. But if Congress ultimately cannot craft a solution, then maybe my next trip through an airport during a shutdown ought not be so easy. Maybe there should be long lines, missed flights and general aggravation. Maybe the resultant outrage would give lawmakers some much-needed clarity.

I am aware of how facile it is for some guy sitting at a desk to advise someone else to put his job — maybe even his freedom — at risk. But I am also aware that what was done to these people was deeply and profoundly unfair. And federal workers — our employees and neighbors — should not suffer alone.

So, redistribute the pain. I’m ready to take my share.

How about you?

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.