Airport Screeners Caught in the Crossfire, Called “Perverts, Creeps”

Created Nov 23 2010 - 6:14pm
As airline passengers revolt against new security procedures, Transportation Security Officers are bearing the brunt of the public’s reaction. “We are verbally assaulted on a daily basis by people who don’t understand,” said one officer.

Screeners place the blame, in part, on the way the Transportation Security Administration introduced the new rules. The change took effect in late October, but the flying public was given no warning.

Valyria Lewis, president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 555 in Memphis, said that even TSA workers had only two weeks’ notice to get trained in the new procedures. “We were pushed, pushed, pushed through training,” Lewis said. When the new procedures went into effect, “the public wasn’t informed and I can’t say that I blame them” for being shocked by the searches.

Passengers can refuse the new full-body scans—the machines are criticized for slight radiation exposure and imaging that sees through clothes—but then they are subjected to much more intrusive pat-downs than those TSA administered previously. The pat-downs now include touching the crotches of both men and women. Pat-downs of specific areas may follow if the officer viewing the scanner can’t identify something on the x-ray image.

TSA managers say the procedures are aimed at avoiding incidents like that of the “underwear bomber,” who attempted to detonate explosives on a plane over Detroit last Christmas.

But civil liberties groups say the pat-downs, which are conducted by an officer of the same sex as the passenger, are too intrusive. Some passengers compared the searches to a sexual assault.


Officers hear about it on a daily basis. They say that passengers call them molesters, perverts, and creeps, and ask them if it gives them a “thrill” to do the searches.

One said that passenger reactions make it hard to face going to work every day. Writing anonymously to a blog, another said, “People fail to understand that neither of us are happy about the intrusive pat-down I am carrying out.”

“We get caught in the crossfire. We don’t make the rules, we’re just enforcing them,” Lewis said. A passenger recently told her co-worker during a pat-down, “I know you’re really enjoying this.”

“In that respect the officer is being assaulted,” she said. “But it’s only a select few you get that from; the consensus of passengers understand. We get a lot of thank-you’s.”

AFGE says the Transportation Security Administration needs to do a better job of telling passengers why it has enhanced screening and what their rights are. The union suggested that TSA give every passenger a pamphlet explaining the new procedures. AFGE President John Gage said the lack of information “has resulted in a backlash against the character and professionalism of TSOs.”

Only three percent of passengers are getting pat-downs, and the numbers may be smaller where new x-ray machines are in use, Lewis said. This is because people with internal metal—knee replacements, for example—can be scanned with the new machines, unlike the past when they set off alarms on walk-through metal detectors.


It’s possible that if workers had more say, these unpleasant surprises could have been avoided, according to Cyndi Jenson, president of AFGE Local 1120 in Salt Lake City. “We could see a storm brewing once we got into training mode,” she said. “We were trying to be lighthearted but we could see that members of the public would have a problem” with the new procedures.

Without a union, Jenson said, “our voice doesn’t get heard, and now people want to sue us. Who is going to protect us? We don’t have rights on the job.”

Jenson worries that the uproar is going to add fuel to Republican calls to privatize airport security.

Transportation Security Officers were denied the right to collective bargaining when the agency was formed after 9/11. Two unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, are now vying to represent TSOs.

In response to a petition from AFGE, the Federal Labor Relations Authority agreed November 12 to a representation election, which is expected early next year. AFGE organizers estimate the total workforce is between 30,000 and 40,000, but the numbers are currently unpublished. AFGE claims 12,000 TSOs as dues-paying members, in 38 locals around the country.

Although they lack bargaining rights, AFGE has been able to represent workers in disciplinary proceedings, said union organizer Terry Meadows. The TSA employee handbook allows workers to designate a representative, so AFGE has been providing representatives to argue cases on behalf of workers, and winning some. However, the proceedings are still controlled by management, Meadows noted. “We could have a really good case” and still lose.


When the Bush administration set up the TSA, officials argued that union rights could compromise security. TSA Administrator John Pistole, an Obama appointee, is thought to be more accommodating, and the two competing unions are pushing Pistole to grant collective bargaining rights for the TSA workforce.

At a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing on intensified screening measures, Republican leaders warned Pistole against making a decision for collective bargaining. "If you decide to . . . allow for collective bargaining among the TSA workforce,” Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson told Pistole, “there would be an upheaval in Congress and serious efforts to prevent that from happening."

But there has been an upheaval in Congress around collective bargaining rights since TSA was formed, Lewis noted. Referring to Senator Hutchinson, Lewis said, “If she’s ready to fight, we’ll get on our boxing gloves, too.”

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