Divisions Over Trump Complicate Unions’ Response to Government Shutdown

Divisions Over Trump Complicate Unions’ Response to Government Shutdown

On a trip to Washington this month, Eric Young, president of the federation’s labor council representing 30,000 federal prison workers, met with the Senate’s Democratic caucus. Mr. Young said his members, many of them military veterans, were nearing their breaking point after working for weeks without pay. He has met with the staffs of several swing Republicans, like Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to tell them that he would hold lawmakers responsible if the shutdown resulted in death or injury for any of his members.

“They will absolutely have blood on their hands,” Mr. Young said in an interview. “When people are distracted by trying to pay their bills, they may take their eyes off an inmate they’re supposed to be supervising.”

As he was making the rounds in the Capitol, his members were picketing the office of Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, in Lexington, Ky. And this week the prison workers’ council erected billboards across the state, home to five federal prisons, saying the shutdown is hurting law enforcement and putting the onus on Mr. McConnell to end it.

Historically, the combination of this inside game and grass-roots pressure gave the unions sway in Washington. Last year, after Mr. Trump proposed freezing federal pay, the unions used their influence in the Senate to help pass the nearly 2 percent pay increase they sought — by a 92 to 6 margin. (The president later issued an executive order blocking the increase, which Congress is likely to seek to overturn whenever it passes legislation to fund the rest of the government.)

The shutdown is putting that model to the test. Most Senate Republicans, however sympathetic they may be privately, have so far resisted the appeals of union officials, deferring to the president on a fight he says is central to his re-election. And the raw emotion of the shutdown is fraying some labor unions that are typically united on matters that affect their personal bottom lines.

The Border Patrol, whose leadership has been most outspoken about backing Mr. Trump, employs a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of workers affected by the impasse in Washington. But the tensions are being felt more broadly.

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