2 unions fight to represent 43,000 TSA screeners

The two largest federal unions are going to slug it out to determine which will represent about 43,000 Transportation Security Administration employees.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) on Nov. 12 granted requests from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) to hold an election at TSA. AFGE expects the election to be held in early 2011.

TSA employees do not yet have collective bargaining rights, but the Obama administration has pledged to extend them those rights. The Homeland Security Department can choose to grant collective bargaining to TSA, and is now conducting a review on the matter.

Unions are also pushing Congress to pass a law permanently extending those rights to TSA, so other administrations cannot revoke them. Two House committees approved such a bill in September 2009, but the full House has not voted on it. The Senate has not introduced a companion bill.

FLRA's Chicago regional director in May denied the unions' request to hold a vote, since screeners do not yet have collective bargaining rights, but the national FLRA overturned that decision.

"The decision to allow for an exclusive union representative means that transportation security officers get to choose which union they wish to act as their voice at work," AFGE National President John Gage said. "It is no secret that the morale of the TSA work force is terrible as a result of favoritism, a lack of fair and respectful treatment from many managers, poor and unhealthy conditions in some airports, poor training and testing protocols and a poor pay system."

NTEU President Colleen Kelley said that while she is glad FLRA granted the request for a vote, she is disappointed it did not answer questions about how such a vote will take place for employees without collective bargaining rights. For example, NTEU said it is still unclear which sections of federal labor law will apply to the election and in what ways.

"We are ready for an election, and we expect to win it, and we will redouble our continuing efforts to win for TSA employees the right to bargain a contract before an election is concluded," Kelley said. "The long-term stability and professionalism of this agency rests on twin pillars — collective bargaining rights for employees and NTEU as their exclusive representative."

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and others who oppose extending collective bargaining rights to TSA say those rights would undermine homeland security efforts. DeMint fears that TSA would not be able to quickly move screeners around or introduce new security measures to respond to emerging threats if it had to bargain with union locals before making any changes.

"Unionizing TSA would be a homeland security disaster," DeMint said last year. "TSA needs to be nimble in responding to ever-changing threats. Having to wait and check with the union bosses before reacting to urgent aviation security threats reduces our ability to keep Americans safe."

The Congressional Budget Office in 2009 estimated that TSA would have to spend $61 million over five years to hire labor relations specialists and set up a personnel system that includes collective bargaining if employees are granted those rights.

NTEU and AFGE have been trying to sign up as many screeners as nonbargaining members as they can over the last few years to position themselves for this vote, which will be even larger than the 2006 vote to determine which union would represent Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) 21,000 employees. NTEU won that election by a 2-to-1 margin.

AFGE said it has about 12,000 paid nonbargaining TSA members at 38 locals, and said another 600 screeners' membership applications are still being processed. Kelley said NTEU has 28 chapters and "thousands" of paid TSA members and applicants, but she refused to say exactly how many.

Both unions would pursue essentially the same agenda if they win. Their prime target is the controversial pay-for-performance program, called the Performance Accountability and Standards System, or PASS. NTEU and AFGE both say PASS is deeply flawed and unfair, and want it repealed or at least overhauled.

"Our ultimate goal is to move back to the [General Schedule] system," Kelley said. "But if we have to do it in steps, we want monumental changes to PASS so people will see it as credible as we make that move. Today, it's a very undefined system based in large part on favoritism, with no real dollars invested in the work force."

Kelley said PASS should devote more money to base pay raises, instead of lump-sum bonus payments that do not carry over into the next year or factor into screeners' retirement annuities. She also wants TSA to make the criteria for performance ratings more transparent so employees know how they're being judged.

The unions also want TSA to improve training opportunities for screeners.

"People who say they didn't pass the proficiency tests, we ask, ‘Did you get the training the law requires?' " said AFGE Membership and Organizing Director Sharon Pinnock. "They say, ‘No, the computers didn't work, or they didn't let me off because they were too understaffed to let me prepare for the training the way I should have.' "

Pinnock said AFGE would encourage TSA to adopt best training practices like those used in Chicago O'Hare International Airport, where underperforming screeners are paired up with stronger screeners so they can learn and improve.

Unions also say TSA needs to standardize some policies that now sometimes vary by airport, such as rules on how leave is granted, how injured employees are accommodated and how shifts are assigned.

"Even though TSA headquarters says they are the ones to set policies, a lot of individual offices kind of go rogue sometimes," Pinnock said. "We want a level playing field, so if someone works at [Dallas Fort Worth International Airport] and transfers to [Los Angeles International Airport], they won't need to learn whole new procedures."

Kelley also wants to use collective bargaining to set up new grievance and arbitration procedures.

The unions are planning to hold get-out-the-vote campaigns at airports, and have organizers talk to undecided screeners about what AFGE or NTEU has done for them. Pinnock said her union will tout its legal fight to defend screeners' First Amendment rights to join a union, and its appeal to the International Labor Organization, which in 2007 ruled TSA violated employees' rights by denying them collective bargaining.

"We started from the very beginning, with the decision our union made to organize this group when President [George W.] Bush said, ‘Those folks can't have a union,' " Pinnock said.

Kelley said NTEU will point to how it has represented CBP employees, some of whom work in airports alongside TSA screeners.

"They know what a difference NTEU has made [for CBP] and that's the kind of representation they want on the ground," Kelley said.

NTEU will also promote how it has helped represent employees facing disciplinary actions, and worked with TSA managers at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport earlier this year to figure out staffing during February's snowstorms and make sure employees who were snowed in were not unfairly punished.

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