Furloughed federal employees and out-of-work contractors greeted one another Thursday with a sarcastic nickname that, on the 20th day of a partial government shutdown, captured their feeling of powerlessness: “Hello, fellow pawns.”
They shouted it to one another over the brutal wind and bitter cold on Thursday in downtown Washington, where hundreds gathered to demand government leaders put an end to the shutdown and allow them to get back to work.
“I want our politicians to get to the table and work out a meaningful plan,” said Anand Desai, 36, an auditor with the Internal Revenue Service from Prince William County, Va. “They need to just solve it and stop using federal workers and the services we provide as a bargaining chip.”
Leaders of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) said they hoped bringing federal workers to the president’s doorstep would show him whom the shutdown has hurt most.
President Trump, though, wasn’t there to see them, having left earlier in the day to visit the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.
Those who gathered — chanting “pay the workers; furlough Trump” as they marched to the White House — work for various federal agencies and live in different states. Some said they support Trump’s push for a border wall and increased security along the U.S.-Mexico border. Others scoffed at the idea.
But they all agreed on one thing: They need to get back to work.
“We want to send a very strong message — that this is not about politics, it’s about getting people back to work,” said Brittany Holder, a spokeswoman for the NFFE and a protest organizer. “People are feeling really stressed and anxious, and they want to know when this will end.”
Protesters packed the street outside the AFL-CIO building on 16th Street NW holding signs that read, “Congress: Do your job so we can do ours.”
After about 90 minutes of speeches, the group marched to the White House, where workers lined up along the fence.
“This is the people’s house,” shouted Jeffery David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). “Surround our house with our workers.”
The protest came amid a partial shutdown that has left nine federal departments and several agencies closed since Dec. 22.
With similar marches in cities around the country, such as Chicago and Dallas, Thursday’s demonstration in the District was the largest protest of the shutdown since it began. Union leaders said if the federal stalemate continued, there would be more.
Negotiations over the shutdown remained at a standstill Thursday after a meeting between Trump and Democratic leaders unraveled a day earlier.
Workers said they felt abandoned and betrayed by a government — and president — that doesn’t seem to understand the hardship they are facing.
“We are public servants. People get into public service because we want to help others,” said De’Neal Gilliam, 30, a furloughed IRS employee from Richmond who stood outside the White House with a colorful sign adorned with pictures of Rihanna that read, “We don’t want a wall. We want work work work work work!”
“Right now, we can’t help ourselves or others,” she said.
Nationally, food inspections and maintenance of national parks have degraded, while federal loans and housing subsidies have languished in a state of limbo. Thousands of federal workers and government contractors have turned to charities and online fundraisers to feed their families and pay bills.
Protesters directed their ire largely at Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republican members of Congress for failing to make a deal to reopen the government.
“They can lie, they can steal, they can bring the United States government to its knees, but we’re going to be fighting, we’re going to be marching and we are going to make sure to hold Mitch McConnell accountable,” Cox told the crowd. “Mitch, do your job.”
The crowd took on the cry: “Do your job,” they chanted. “Do your job.”
Two federal employees’ unions have sued the Trump administration over the government shutdown since it began in December.
The AFGE — the largest union for federal workers — filed first, alleging that hundreds of thousands of federal employees are illegally being forced to work without pay. The National Treasury Employees Union followed with a collective action that asked that two named plaintiffs — both Customs and Border Protection officers — and other similarly classified individuals be paid owed wages.
Furloughed federal employees and out-of-work contractors joined members of Congress and union representatives in addressing the crowd. They described the pride they felt in their jobs and the joys of being a public servant. Then they described the disillusionment brought on by the shutdown.
“No payments means no gas for our cars, no money for our prescriptions, our groceries, our rents and our mortgages,” said Steve Ching, a high-voltage electrician who contracts for NASA. “We’re all wondering how long our families will be able to hold out.”
More than a dozen Democratic members of Congress attended the rally, though only a handful addressed the crowd, including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), and Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) and Mark R. Warner (Va.).
“It is unbelievable that we have a president of the United States who is prepared to deny a paycheck to 800,000 federal workers. It is unbelievable that we have a president who is prepared to deny basic governmental services to millions of Americans who need those services,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who also spoke. “Today, we say to this president, ‘Grow up. Do your job. End this shutdown.’ ”
The NFFE, which has been receiving calls from its members since the shutdown began, has discussed organizing a food drive and collecting aid for members struggling to make ends meet, Holder said.
“The federal government is supposed to be the place where we send our best and brightest,” she said. “People should aspire to work for the federal government, but now they’re wondering if this is the place they want to be.”