AFGE fires first salvo in bid to organize TSA screeners

By Max Cacas

The American Federation of Government Employees holds its annual legislative conference here in Washington this week. And the organization that is one of the largest federal labor unions in the country staged a pre-emptive strike in its effort to gain the right to organize & represent a large number of federal workers.

To the applause of his members, John Gage, President of the AFGE, made his announcement yesterday in a news conference at union headquarters here in Washington.

Specifically, Gage and his union are filing a petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority to be the exclusive union representative for 40,000 Transportation Security Officers (TSO), members of the Transportation Security Administration, who staff airport security gates. So far, AFGE has 13,000 TSOs who are union members.

Gage acknowledges that it might be considered "putting the cart before the horse" to ask to be recognized even before the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security officially grant collective bargaining rights.

Of course, we're going to continue our quest for collective bargaining. We know we're going to get it. But you have to do an election anyway. And there's nothing that says you have to get the bargaining rights first, and then have the election. We believe that under the law, under the FLRA, that it is not required to have collective bargaining rights before you move for union representation, and that's what we are doing.
The AFGE move comes weeks after Erroll Southers, President Obama's nominee to head the TSA, withdrew his nomination in the face of opposition by some Senate members, including South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint, who has claimed publicly that union TSOs would somehow represent a threat to national security at the airports.

Here's how Gage responds to DeMint:

They seem to equate union membership with something that is adverse to national security. That's an insult to all of labor, and all of labor is standing up to that insult. When you see headlines that "union bosses will control the security at our airports", it gives hypocrisy a bad name to put that out.
While the Bush Administration was openly opposed to union representation for TSA workers, the Obama Administration has generally been favorable to the idea. Everyone from President Obama, to Office of Personnel Management director John Berry has spoken publicly in favor of union representation for TSA screeners. Gage says he and his union will continue to be patient with the administration as it attempts to find another nominee to replace Southers as head of the TSA, but admits, "We're frustrated," at the lack of a strong leader at the agency while TSOs continue to work without effective collective bargaining to address a number of workplace issues.

The AFGE move puts the union at odds with another large federal employee labor organization seeking to organize TSA screeners, the National Treasury Employees Union.

Colleen Kelley is national president of the NTEU. We spoke to her from Austin, Texas where she had just finished meeting with Internal Revenue Service employees who were attacked by a man who deliberately crashed his small plane into their building last week.

"Our goal, first and foremost, continues to be to secure collective bargaining rights for these employees," she told Federal News Radio in a telephone interview. "They're long overdue, and they should have had them years ago."

Addressing the timing of the AFGE petititon, Kelley said, "I'm not sure that the timing is right, doing an election without collective bargaining rights, and how that would even work, because without collective bargaining, you can't bring real meaningful improvement to the TSO's worklives, because you would have no ability to negotiate a contract."

Kelley adds that if the AFGE is successful in getting the FLRA to approve the petition, "then, NTEU is ready to compete for and to win the election for TSA."

Meanwhile, AFGE plans to hold a midday rally to press for collective bargaining rights for TSA workers at 11:30am today at AFL-CIO headquarters on 16th Street Northwest.

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