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Why Federal Workers Still Have to Show Up Even If They’re Not Being Paid

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The law prohibits public employees from striking, forcing them into what one union leader called “involuntary servitude” during the government shutdown.

Eric Young is the president of the union that represents the approximately 30,000 employees of the Federal Bureau of Prisons who are working during the government shutdown.

Young’s members, scattered at 122 facilities located in largely rural areas across the country, aren’t being paid and don’t know when their next paycheck will come. Like the leaders of virtually every federal-employee union during the past three weeks, he has condemned the shutdown and its toll on innocent workers as “unconscionable.”

“My personal opinion,” Young told me over the phone from his office in Arkansas, “is that it constitutes involuntary servitude.”

Neither Young nor any of his partners in union leadership, however, will urge their members to do the one thing that would seem most natural for employees facing the same treatment in the private sector: If they don’t pay you, stay home.

“We can’t call or advocate for a strike,” Young said.

Since the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, federal employees have been legally prohibited from striking. That law was intended to prevent public-sector workers from leveraging a work stoppage that could cripple the U.S. government or major industries in negotiations for better pay, working conditions, and benefits. But it likely did not envision a scenario where the government would require its employees to work without paying them, as is the case now.

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