Airport Screeners a Step Closer to Bargaining Rights

Friday, July 10, 2009

Charity Wilson didn't go looking for a fight when she went to the Cannon House Office Building yesterday, but she was ready in case one broke out.

Wilson, an American Federation of Government Employees lobbyist, was prepared to provide Homeland Security Committee members with rebuttal arguments against any attempt to weaken or kill legislation that would allow airport screeners the right to bargain collectively.

But Republican opponents apparently knew a fight would be futile. The 13 to 6 vote along party lines that advanced the bill came after almost no debate. What could have been a long, contentious meeting was over in less than 20 minutes.

Given that, perhaps it was fitting that the main argument of New York Rep. Peter T. King, the top Republican on the panel, against the measure was "this is very much a rush to judgment."

Of course, Wilson, and history, beg to differ.

"It's been a long, hard slog," she said outside the hearing room, recalling efforts to organize transportation security officers that began in 2001. "We believe we are on our way."

Officers do have the right to join unions -- and many are members of the AFGE or the National Treasury Employees Union. But those unions don't have the ability to bargain on their members' behalf.

Complaining that screeners now are treated "like spare parts," Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chief sponsor of the bill, said in a statement that "extending basic workplace protections to TSOs . . . will decrease costs and improve results in our air security."

It probably also will improve morale at the agency. It certainly can't hurt. Though there has been some improvement on that front, employee surveys indicate that the TSA remains near the bottom of the heap in regard to federal workers' view of their workplace.

Gaining bargaining rights for the 45,000 screeners has been a top priority for both unions. They pressed Barack Obama on it during the presidential campaign and have urged the White House or the Department of Homeland Security to issue an order creating those rights. But that route has been complicated, because the top position in the department's Transportation Security Administration is vacant.

Using the legislative route, even while hoping for administrative action, is the next best thing for the unions. The bill advanced yesterday now goes to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where it should have no trouble. The legislation has not been considered by the Senate this session. Passage by the full, union-friendly Congress is likely at some point. Whenever that happens, it won't be soon enough for officers who have been pushing for the right to negotiate.

"I'm thinking it's a wonderful thing. . . . It's been way too long" said Kimberly Kraynak, a behavior detection officer and president of AFGE Local 332 at Pittsburgh International Airport.

The House and Senate approved bargaining rights for TSOs in 2007, but that provision was dropped in reaction to a veto threat from President George W. Bush.

Now, "I anticipate moving it right along," said the Homeland Security Committee chairman, Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). "It probably will be in the fall session."

Obama's support is assured, at least given his campaign statements. In an October letter to AFGE President John Gage, Obama said "advocating for TSOs to receive collective bargaining rights and workplace protections will be a priority for my administration. It is unacceptable for TSOs to work under unfair rules and without workplace protections -- this makes it more difficult for them to perform their jobs."

In addition to providing collective bargaining rights, the bill also would strike down the agency's pay-for-performance system and place employees under the General Schedule, or GS, system that is widely used throughout the federal government.

"TSA workers should have a pay and performance system that is fair, credible and transparent, as well as a clear voice in the development of workplace quality standards that benefit the entire traveling public," said NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley, who thinks the current system is the opposite of all those things.

Aubrey Williams, a member of AFGE Local 555 at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, predicted the legislation will lead to a transformed TSA. "That is extremely exciting news for us," he said of the committee vote. "The ramifications of that will be an entirely different TSA."

Collective bargaining, he said, will "level the playing field" in promotions, seniority and evaluations, while ending the current pay-for-performance system and providing union members the ability "to grieve injustices. Those are things we are looking for to make TSA a better place to work."

The Transportation Security Workforce Enhancement Act can be found at on the Web.

Contact Joe Davidson at [email protected]

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