Airport Problems Show Trump Has Already Lost the Shutdown Fight

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It appears we've finally hit a pain point in the government shutdown that will bring about either legislation to end the shutdown or a crisis that impacts far more than the federal employees who have so far borne the brunt of the shutdown. The pain is felt as airports in the Northeast have restricted traffic because of staffing issues at the Federal Aviation Administration.

A historian can't help but note the parallel between the crisis confronting President Donald Trump and the one Ronald Reagan faced early in his administration, both involving air traffic controllers. Reagan's crisis was an air traffic controllers union participating in an illegal strike during a time of high unemployment and as the public was turning against labor unions. Reagan firing all the air traffic controllers was a pivotal moment both in labor relations and Reagan's image, becoming seen as a tough, resolute leader who would stand up to challengers both domestically or in the Soviet Union.

Trump is no Reagan. The breaking point today is federal employees going without pay for a month because of an unpopular government shutdown at a time of decades-low unemployment. Successful teacher strikes all around the country both in 2018 and in early 2019 show that organized labor increasingly has leverage and isn't afraid to use it. Trump is going to lose this fight.

The government shutdown, even once it's resolved, may have brought about a new labor crisis in America. Search traffic on job sites coming from federal government employees has surged during the government shutdown. The shutdown will likely lead to more federal employee retirements and people leaving for other jobs, and make working for the federal government less attractive to new job seekers. It'll probably require significant improvements in pay and working conditions to get post-shutdown staffing back to appropriate levels, improvements that may be hard to squeeze into the budget so long as Trump is president and Republicans maintain a majority in the Senate.

Events like this have a way of exposing long-term trends already building in the system, whether it be the unsustainability of labor demands in the early 1980s or the poor treatment of workers in the late 2010s. Beyond the political ramifications, the legacy of this shutdown might be a federal government staffing crunch and even more labor activism than we've seen to date.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

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