Angry government workers protest shutdown
After 14 years of working at the second largest federal prison in the nation, FCC Beaumont, Anthony Simon says the people of Beaumont don’t realize the government shutdown was affecting workers right here at home.
Simon and at least 20 other government employees gathered at the Jack Brooks Federal Building in Beaumont on Monday, Oct. 14, to protest the government shutdown that began Oct. 1 and would last until Wednesday night, Oct. 16. Workers sang “Clean up Congress!” and other union chants to bring attention to their plight.
Simon said the $400 paycheck he received Monday represents just a fraction of his normal salary of $1,400 every two weeks, and the U.S. Army veteran said another paycheck wouldn’t come until the shutdown ends.
“The inmates that are housed at the federal prison, they are getting paid. But the workers are not getting paid,” Simon said. “I don’t know how that law came about, but that’s what’s going on.”
Jeff Darby, the Local 2139 president and Texas AFL-CIO vice president for American Federation of Government Employees, said workers in Southeast Texas were being affected and had no choice but to sit at home while Washington hashed out a deal.
“It’s impacting the people who live here. It’s impacting the economy of Southeast Texas because some 1,500 employees are not getting paid. You have some employees who are told not to work under penalty of criminal law,” Darby said. “We have some employees who will work, but we’ll consider you laid off and under no situation will you get paid until Congress feels like paying you.”
After Congress was able to reach a deal, Darby said workers would receive their back pay, but no one knows when.
Darby and others laid blame for the government shutdown squarely at the feet of Congressional Republicans, who’ve voted at least 46 times unsuccessfully to defund Obamacare and then shut down the government to get their way.
“Elections are supposed to have consequences in our country. We have a long system of majority rule while respecting the rights of the minority. The people spoke last year. Whether or not some agree with what the majority of people said, the majority spoke,” Darby said. “Are there problems with Obamacare? There probably are. There are problems with any federal law. But the thing that reasonable people do is they go in and talk to one another and try to resolve their differences. It would be akin to the Democrats shutting down the government because they can’t get a gun control law passed.”
Greg Griffin, an electrician at Beaumont’s federal prison for 17 years and an Air Force veteran, said he worked without pay for some two weeks. Griffin said he made calls to creditors who’ve gave him another two weeks to pay the bills.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Greg, why are you doing this? Why don’t you leave and go to a different job?’ It’s because we swore to do this for our country,” Griffin said. “Civil servants are almost like military. We serve our country. And most of us, I’d say about 65 percent of us, are veterans. We’ve earned everything we get, and we still work hard for everything we get, and we still do it now and we’re not getting anything.”
Still others at the federal prison say the security situation at the prison was dire well before the shutdown. Nationwide furloughs have prevented hiring additional staff and have kept the prison guard to prisoner ratio at 1:150.
“We have a high security prison down there and we don’t have the funding to properly staff it to keep it safe,” said Clifton Buchanan, regional vice president of the council of prison locals 33. “The inmates know that and attacks have been on the rise because they know there are less officers in there. It’s just a matter of time before that time bomb blows up and costs $150 million to rebuild a federal prison.”
Simon said at least one prison guard, Eric Williams, was killed in Pennsylvania earlier this year due to lack of staff at a federal prison.
While unions might be blaming Congressional Republicans, most Americans are somewhat split on who to blame for the government shutdown. Even after an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll revealed most Americans blame Congressional Republicans and not President Obama for the shutdown by a 22-point margin (53 percent to 31 percent), it is still unclear if that momentum will continue a year from now when Americans take to the voting booths for midterm elections.
The deal Congress was able to secure Wednesday night, Oct. 16, after the Senate and House passed a last-minute bill to avert a default on America’s debt and to end the government shutdown, will only last for a while.
America could be brought back to the brink should Congress not refund the government before Jan. 15 and avoid another government shutdown and increase the debt limit by Feb. 7.
“Put us back to work,” was Darby’s message to Congress earlier this week. “Give us back pay and let’s come up with a better course of action than politicizing American workers and closing the United States of America down.”