About 200 federal employees, union leaders, and supporters rallied in front of the Liberty Bell on Tuesday morning to protest the partial government shutdown and pay freeze.
They carried bare-bones signs made from torn pieces of cardboard — “I’d rather be working for the greater good,” one read — and spoke of not being able to pay their bills, of feeling like pawns, of feeling disrespected.
“I’m tired of the politics,” HUD employee Lynn Cox said, addressing the crowd. “I’m tired of the games that are being played in this country.”
The rally was organized by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents about 10,000 workers in Philadelphia, including Transportation Security Administration agents, Department of Housing and Urban Development employees, and correctional officers, and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), representing more than 5,000 employees locally.
The protesters who gathered on a dreary, chilly morning are among the thousands of employees who have either been furloughed or forced to work without pay since the partial shutdown began Dec. 22 because of a dispute over the $5.7 billion that President Donald Trump is demanding to build a wall between Mexico and the United States.
Instead, the president has “built a wall between his administration and federal workers," said EPA paralegal specialist Jan Nation, "a wall of distrust.” Many workers said that this shutdown felt different from previous ones, that this time, it was hard to see a way forward.
Trump is slated to address the public Tuesday night.
National Park Service employees were front and center during the rally, standing in a line behind the podium on the grounds where they work. David Fitzpatrick, a longtime HVAC mechanic who works at Independence Hall, said he was especially frustrated because he and his coworkers were called into work the last weekend of the year after Visit Philly donated $32,000 to keep Independence Park open — but workers didn’t get paid.
U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Bucks County who has touted his independence from the White House, was the only GOP official who spoke at the rally. A former FBI agent, he talked of his experience during the 2013 federal shutdown, telling the crowd that shutdowns can endanger national security. Newly inaugurated U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon spoke, as did U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, and Philadelphia State Sen. Vincent Hughes, all Democrats.
Another protest by federal unions is planned for Thursday morning in Washington outside AFL-CIO headquarters, and the NTEU plans to bus members to D.C.
With more than 45,000 federal employees, the Philadelphia metropolitan region has one of the largest concentrations of government workers outside of the Washington area. In New Jersey, more than 5,000 federal employees have either been furloughed or are working without pay, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez said at a news conference Tuesday at Newark Liberty International Airport.
The next scheduled payday for federal workers is Friday. Phil Glover, president of the local AFGE district, said he does not expect his members to get paid and has been advising them to inquire about unemployment benefits with their states of residence.
Alex Jay Berman, a NTEU leader, said he’s telling his members that it’s a personal choice, as they may ultimately have to pay unemployment benefits back if they get back pay.