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Striking Lawmakers Walk Off the Job

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In a liberal arts classroom, students are expected to question received wisdom, and are challenged to do so. If this blog posting were my classroom, I would ask about the news headline that says the government is shut down. How is that possible, given the evidence?

Ours is, in the iconic words of Abraham Lincoln, a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Lincoln made that historic equation on the battlefield at Gettysburg one hundred and fifty years ago this November. Faced with an extraordinary degree of carnage, the casualties themselves seemed to ask the question Lincoln articulated, "testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." Lincoln's overriding concern was not so much for the partisan struggle, the respective self-interest that led citizens from North and South to a defining point in their lives, but for the experiment in government, "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Were we wasting our time, he seemed to ask, by dedicating our lives to the prospect "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth?"

One hundred years later, we are told by news sources that the government is shut down. How can this be the case, when we see all around us the business of American people, ongoing? If ours is a government "of the people" then I see no evidence of the people having shut themselves down. For that to be the case all of us -- the people -- would need to be sitting on our hands, shutting down our workplaces and our communities. True, there are federal workers who are not allowed to work right now -- but federal workers alone are not "the government" anymore than are the employed alone, or the police alone, or any other sector of the American people.

What is shut down right now is the work of a very small portion of the American people with a very large set of responsibilities. These are our elected federal lawmakers. It would be more accurate to say that our legislators have gone on strike, similar in motivation and effect to the actions of other organized segments of the workforce of Americans when their negotiations collapse, when they can't get what they want through discussion. The lawmakers' strike was called to draw attention to the fact that they are not doing well in their negotiations, and to force the hand of those with opposing points of view. This group of lawmakers has walked off the job during negotiations. Historically, when workers walk off the job during negotiations we call it a strike. These striking legislators also oversee a workforce that carries out their legislative acts. The workers are compelled, in this current strike, to join the small segment of Americans, the lawmakers, who have gone on strike. In the world of union workplaces, this is called a closed-shop, and these workers are not allowed, by their bosses, to break the strike.

Let's not insult the American people, then, by perpetuating the misnaming of a strike by lawmakers a government shutdown. Now, whether this strike is authorized, or deemed by the people as an acceptable tactic in negotiations -- that's the topic of another class, on another occasion.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly alluded to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as having been delivered 100 years ago. It was delivered 150 years ago. The error has since been corrected.