In the largest unionization vote involving federal employees, the nation’s airport screeners voted in favor of unionizing, but federal officials said on Wednesday that there would be a runoff because neither union on the ballot received a majority of the votes cast.
Federal officials said 8,369 security screeners, who are employees of the Transportation Security Administration, had voted to join the American Federation of Government Employees, while 8,095 had voted to join the National Treasury Employees Union. The vote against unionizing was 3,111.
Since none of the three choices received a majority, the screeners will choose between the two unions in a runoff election that will omit the option of not unionizing. The winning union will represent the nation’s 44,000 T.S.A. screeners in contract negotiations. The runoff will be held over the next two months.
Labor leaders were pleased that 84 percent of the screeners who voted favored a union, saying it showed that many government employees still wanted to bargain collectively, even when public employees are on the defensive in places like Wisconsin and Ohio, where state leaders have largely curtailed the right of public sector unions to bargain.
Throughout the campaign, the federation of government employees insisted it had an advantage because 12,000 screeners already belong to that union, even though they did not have the ability to bargain until recently. But the Treasury employees’ union predicted that it would win because it already represented many Customs and Border Protection employees who work at airports with the screeners. The leaders of both unions voiced confidence they would win the runoff.
The federation of government employees says screeners should vote for it because it emphasizes bottom-up unionism and belongs to the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s main labor federation, while the Treasury employees union says it warrants support because it represents professionals and provides excellent legal support.
The results of the vote were announced by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which conducted the six-week election. Each airport screener was given a personal identification number, which allowed voting by computer or telephone.
Until recently screeners did not have a right to bargain collectively. But in February, the T.S.A.’s administrator, John S. Pistole, reversed the position of his Republican predecessor and gave employees the ability to bargain collectively.
Mr. Pistole said screeners could bargain over policies on shifts, dress code, break time and awards. But the union could not negotiate wages, benefits, job qualifications, discipline standards or anything related to national security. He also said the agency’s workers would not be allowed to strike or engage in a slowdown and would be fired for doing so.
Many Republican leaders have said that allowing screeners to bargain collectively would jeopardize national security, warning that strikes and work slowdowns could cripple airports and result in insufficient security checks.
After the vote results were announced, Mr. Pistole said, “The safety of the traveling public remains our top priority, and I have made clear we will not negotiate on security.”
T.S.A. officials say unionization will improve screeners’ morale and will in turn improve productivity and service to the public.