Airport screeners closer to having collective bargaining agreement

updated 5:44 PM EDT, Thu August 2, 2012

Washington (CNN) -- After 10 years on the job, the nation's 44,000 airport screeners on Thursday came a giant step closer to having their first-ever collective bargaining agreement.

Their employer, the Transportation Security Administration, and their union, the American Federation of Government Employees, announced they had reached an agreement, subject to ratification by the screeners.

Democrats hailed the agreement, which presidential candidate Barack Obama promised in the closing weeks of the 2008 campaign. They said the agreement could ensure the rights of airport screeners without harming national security

But Republican critics said they still have reservations.

"Despite (TSA Administrator John) Pistole's comments that security will not be impacted, I remain skeptical," Rep. Peter King, R-New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a written statement.

King said he will monitor the agreement to make sure it does not degrade security operations or impair TSA's ability to train, supervise and discipline employees.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, who this week chaired a hearing on TSA "misconduct," said he remains concerned the agreement may harm security and "insulate (the TSA's) bloated workforce" from change.

Both the TSA and the union heralded the agreement, but did not release details, saying they would make them public at the same time they are shared with members.

"This agreement represents a significant milestone in our relationship with our employees. We look forward to a review of the agreement by our covered employees," Pistole said in a release.

Republicans on Capitol Hill fought against the collective bargaining rights for screeners, saying it would restrict the TSA's ability to rapidly respond to threats, such as the 2006 liquid bomb threat. In that instance, the TSA changed rules about carry-on items overnight.

Republicans also criticize the TSA workforce as being bloated with bureaucracy, and say the TSA should privatize screener jobs.

Further, Republicans fear a debilitating job action by unionized workers. At a 2010 House hearing, one lawmaker pressed Pistole on the issue.

"I'm trying to get a clear 'Yes' or 'No' answer from you," Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama said to Pistole. "If (screeners) engage in a work stoppage or slowdown, or should they engage in a strike, are you willing to fire them en masse? Yes or no?"

"I'm willing to. Yes," Pistole answered.

Pistole said he would never negotiate away security.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, released a statement saying the agreement can "enhance workforce productivity, morale, and the TSA's mission without affecting security."

The American Federation of Government Employees is the largest federal employee union, representing 650,000 federal and District of Columbia government workers. It said the agreement will be submitted to the workforce in coming weeks.

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