The largest federal employee union filed a petition on Monday requesting an election to represent about 40,000 airport security screeners -- a direct challenge to Republicans in Congress who argue that giving those workers collective bargaining rights will hurt national security.
In announcing its filing with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, the American Federation of Government Employees asserted that more than 30 percent of the screeners employed by the Transportation Security Administration and working in over 100 airports want the union to become their sole representative.
The election would be a critical step toward winning collective bargaining rights for TSA screeners, which they have never had since the agency was founded in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We are going to continue our quest for collective bargaining and we know we are going to get it. But you have to do an election anyway," AFGE president John Gage said on Monday. "We're just not going to take no for an answer."
The issue of giving screeners collective bargaining rights was thrust into the public spotlight recently when several Republican senators opposed President Obama's nominee to lead TSA because they feared he would support collective bargaining for the agency workforce.
"TSA screeners can already join unions, but collective bargaining would force TSA officials to ask union bosses for permission to make critical security changes," argued Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.
The nominee, Erroll Southers, withdrew from consideration in January. Gage fired back at DeMint and other GOP senators on Monday.
"They seem to equate union membership with something that is adverse to national security and that's an insult to all of labor and all of labor is standing up to that insult," he said, noting that the Border Patrol and many other law enforcement agencies have collective bargaining rights.
The Obama administration has not yet found a new nominee for TSA.
But AFGE's petition to hold an election for screeners adds a twist to efforts to confirm a new administrator. The nominee is likely to face pointed questions from Republican senators during confirmation hearings about the organizing effort.
Gage expressed frustration over the long process to find a new administrator. "We're frustrated by the lack of having a strong leadership at TSA. The agency desperately needs it. So we just decided to step out on this," he said.
The union is also petitioning Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to grant screeners collective bargaining rights.
"I think the administration has some options. I'm not going to speak for them," Gage said. "They can speak for themselves about the secretary and her involvement in this."
AFGE is holding its annual legislative conference this week in Washington and union officials plan to meet with lawmakers on several issues, including collective bargaining rights for screeners.
The union plans a rally Tuesday specifically to support bargaining rights, where Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., are expected to speak.
The union's petition to hold elections was filed with the Washington Region of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. AFGE officials said the agency is not under a deadline to act on the petition, but they hope to get a quick response.
If the petition is denied, the union will appeal to the FLRA board, Gage said.