Comparative Caselets: The Civil Service as a Pillar of Support

*By Becca Leviss
Time Period: 1920-2023
Location: USA, Canada, Germany, Guinea-Bissau, Fiji
Main Actors: Current and former Department of Justice employees; American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE); National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU); Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) employees and unions; Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE); Front commun (“the common front,” a coalition of Canadian unions representing workers across the public sector, including health care and education); German trade unions; National Union of Workers in Guinea-Bissau (UNTG); The General Confederation of Independent Unions; Public Service Association; Public Employees Union; Fiji Nursing Association
– Civil Servant Strike
Boycotts of government departments, agencies, and other bodies
Group or Mass Petition
General and limited strikes
Slowdown strike
Popular nonobedience
Stalling and obstruction

Research highlights that successful social movements do not just mobilize large numbers, but specifically bring in people from the organizations and institutions that maintained the power of the status quo, often referred to as the pillars of support. Effective organizing requires understanding the strengths and weaknesses of these pillars, how to mobilize people in the pillars to withdraw their support from those in power, and what levers people in the pillars can pull to put pressure on existing authority.

One key pillar of support to consider in any movement targeting the government is the civil service: career government employees hired rather than appointed or elected, and often serving in their roles across various political administrations. Who is in the civil service varies across countries – some countries count medical professionals and teachers among their civil service, for example – and the roles and responsibilities of civil servants similarly vary. Yet what is shared across countries is that every government requires workers to carry out the government’s functions. And modern governments with an expansive set of complex responsibilities require a particularly complex, educated, specialized workforce. 

In the struggle to protect and expand democracy, civil servants have two key characteristics that make them particularly powerful. First, and most obviously, they are the actual implementers of government policy. Any authoritarian policies or practices will require the cooperation of a critical mass of the civil service. Second, civil servants in the United States take a sworn oath to protect and defend the constitution, committing the heart of their work to protecting our democratic political system over and above the agendas of any particular political leader. The civil service is both critically important to the day-to-day functioning of our political system and uniquely committed to its integrity.

The Civil Service in a United States Context 
The current US civil service system was established in the late 1800s to replace and rectify a structure in which personal and political loyalty determined professional placement in the federal government. Since then, the US civil service has functioned as a bulwark of effective, democratic government. At the core of this is the principle that “a strong merit-based civil service is critical to a functioning democracy. It ensures that our government…continues to serve the American public without interruption, even though our leaders change.” The civil service counterbalances the political whims of the moment, ensuring that the basic functions of government continue no matter who happens to have won the most recent election.

Yet this meritocratic, nonpartisan structure has recently come under fire. In 2020, frustrated at resistance to their policy agenda by civil servants, the Trump administration created a new designation in the federal civil service: “Schedule F,” which would convert tens of thousands of executive branch employees from career civil servants whose responsibilities were to perform the technical aspects of their jobs to political appointees subject to firing at the whim of the president. 

The Biden administration almost immediately repealed the creation of Schedule F and has put in place regulations that would help civil servants keep their job protections even were Schedule F to be reinstated. Yet until codified into law such protections remain vulnerable to repeal by future administrations, an action that former President Trump has repeatedly expressed his intention of taking if elected. Attempts to pass laws providing stronger protections such as the Saving the Civil Service Act have yet to gain significant political momentum.

In this moment of political attacks on the civil service, it is crucial to evaluate ways that civil servants in the US and around the globe have wielded their influence to protect democracy and avoided falling prey to the political whims of would-be authoritarians.

Forms of Resistance and Barriers to Effectiveness 
In addition to their distinct position of influence, civil servants face unique barriers to mobilization and some of the more influential forms of nonviolent resistance. For most similar professional workers, the labor strike is a potent political tool. Yet since the passage of the Taft-Hartley act in 1947, US civil servants have been legally prohibited from striking. Similar laws exist in other liberal democracies. Recently, the European Court of Human Rights upheld a German law that prohibits civil servants from striking, when it was challenged by several German teachers. In 2024, the International Labour Organization will seek an advisory opinion from the United Nations’ high court on the right to strike, which will have widespread effects on the utility of civil servant actions as a means of opposition. 

Civil service unions, then, are understandably cautious to call for strikes and instead rely on a variety of other tactics, such as judicial and legislative interventions to ensure their protection and resolution against unfair treatment that would likely otherwise lead to a strike. For example, in 2013, US workers successfully sued the federal government for breaking minimum-wage and overtime laws by withholding wages for essential workers, with the court ultimately ruling in plaintiffs’ favor. A similar case was also filed on behalf of two federal workers’ unions in 2019.

During attacks on democracy during the Trump Administration, US civil servants took a wide range of other kinds of actions short of legally-prohibited labor strikes, as outlined in this piece: joining public statements, whistleblowing, deliberate inefficiency and “slow-balling” job functions, and ultimately, resigning in protest. Civil servants spoke out against attempts to cripple the Mueller investigation, politicize the Department of Justice, and delays in election certification

One sector of the civil service that has found significant success as a lever of power to uphold democracy has been federal transportation workers, in particular the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). During the federal government shutdown from late 2018 into early 2019, TSA workers called in sick as a form of protest and multiple TSA unions filed lawsuits, leading to unprecedented staffing shortages and air travel delays. These combined efforts showed political leaders the costs of keeping the government closed and ultimately generated significant pressure to put an end to the longest government shutdown in US history. 

In the fall of 2023, when faced with the threat of another shutdown, TSA workers again rallied at major airports and elevated to national attention the threats to air travel posed by a shutdown, especially coming up against the holiday season. And while it is difficult to show a clear causal relationship when so many factors are at play, it appears likely that the impending risks to federal employees and everyday Americans alike were a factor in the last-minute spending bill that ultimately averted a government shutdown. 

International Examples
The Taft-Hartley Act has limited the range of action available to civil servants in the United States. Thus, to gain insights into the potential power of more direct civil servant action we have to turn to the rest of the world. In November 2023, several hundred thousand civil servants in Quebec––teachers, health professionals, and other social service workers––went on strike to demand better pay and working conditions. After several rounds of negotiations between the Quebec government and a coalition of major unions, multiple limited strikes and the threat of a general unlimited strike (which would have public sector workers striking indefinitely), both sides were able to reach tentative agreements, avoiding prolonged strikes and limits to healthcare, education, and other social services. This example illustrates the effectiveness of such coordinated strikes when they are conducted across wide swaths of the civil service.

And famously, the Kapp Putsch, a coup d’état in 1920 Germany that attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic, failed primarily because of civil servants’ refusal to carry out the orders of Wolfgang Kapp and Walther von Lüttwitz, the illegitimate leaders of the coup government. Senior government officers refused to report for duty, government press offices were unable to publish Kapp’s manifesto because they had “misplaced” essential technology like typists and typewriters, and all the Berlin printers walked out in protest when two pro-government newspapers were occupied by the occupying military. These efforts of the government bureaucracy to refuse to cooperate with the coup government inspired other forms of civil resistance, including a more widespread general strike, bringing the country’s economy to a standstill. Within days, Kapp announced his resignation. 

In February 2003, 95% of civil servants in Guinea-Bissau participated in a series of general strikes to protest the withholding of overdue wages by the government, the anti-democratic President Kumba Iala, and the release of several opposition leaders that had been illegally arrested for their criticism of the Bissau-Guinean government. The strike happened in coordination with a protest march of human rights activists and labor leaders through downtown Bissau, as well as a week of widespread sporadic protests throughout the country and a rally held by the Union for Change, the Guinea-Bissau Resistance Party, and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. In the end, the government and the striking parties reached a satisfactory resolution, but the government’s slow pace to meet their ends of the demands prompted another strike a few weeks later. This time, once again, more than 90% of public servants participated in the general strike to demand the government fulfill their promises.

Ultimately, the final round of strikes were moderately successful: while the campaign did not force the resignation of President Iala nor completely halt unlawful detentions of dissidents, the government did release several detainees and agreed to pay overdue wages and provide necessary additional food and medical assistance to civil servants. More importantly, however, the breadth and coordination of the striking coalition––ranging from human rights groups and media organizations to the Bissau-Guinean Bar Association to government bureaucrats and the officials they served––sent a message of the strength and power behind their efforts to both the government and the larger international community.
In 2007, several public sector unions went on strike in Fiji in protest against budget rebalancing measures––such as pay cuts and changes to the retirement age––made by the military government that had staged a coup and come to power in 2006. Participating unions included over 1,400 nurses, 1,000 teachers, and hundreds of public works employees in coordinated efforts for the interim government to restore wages and call attention to the illegitimacy of the coup’s mandate to govern. And while ultimately, the Fijian military government modestly acquiesced to some of the unions’ demands, in subsequent years after the strike, in 2009, it passed several measures that dramatically restricted the rights of federal workers to organize, bargain collectively, and conduct a strike. Additionally, in 2011, Amnesty International reported the arrests and harassment of several prominent union leaders and staffers by Fijian authorities, in direct violation of the ILO (International Labour Organization) Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. 

The above examples span history, geography, and motivations. Public sector unions striking for fair wages and benefits, for example, can seem distinct from civil servants intentionally creating bureaucratic snarls through direct action (or often inaction). And yet all these examples––however disparate they might appear––give us clarity around the breadth of power that civil servants wield when they are organized around a common objective, be it improving their working conditions or protecting democracy. In a constitutional crisis, where more dramatic action might be called for, these kinds of direct tactics would be a powerful, essential part of any pro-democracy movement.

Civil servants, while often forgotten players in the functions (or dysfunctions) of government, nonetheless hold tremendous power. Civil service resistance has been most successful in achieving its objectives when civil servants take seriously the obligations of their oaths of office to uphold governmental institutions––not the whims of an administration or executive––and work from the essential fact that, ultimately, the power of the political leaders they serve is directly derived from their active consent and cooperation.

By virtue of the work they do on a daily basis––regulating roads and transportation systems, processing identification information and licenses, performing essential clerical and administrative work, implementation of a plethora of policies from the mundane to the complex––they can utilize their skills and access to be decisive linchpins in the success or failure of democracy. 

You can access all the caselets from the Pillars of Support Project here.

Works Consulted (in approximate order of appearance):