Airport screeners seek union

Loy heads the Transportation Security Administration, which was created in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The administration's screeners replaced airline-hired security personnel at the nation's airports last Nov. 19.

Peter Winch, the union's national organizer, said "the union intends to keep filing petitions for more airports. We intend to represent this workforce."

But on Jan. 8, Loy said he will not allow screeners to join a union, citing "critical national security responsibilities." In a memo, Loy said he has the right to block the unionization move because of authority granted in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, a law adopted in November 2001.

"(Loy) decided it would be detrimental to national security to allow that, and it is a standing order," said Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the agency.

The union argues the law does the opposite, calling for the Security Administration to treat its employees the same as its sibling agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, which does negotiate with unions. Also, the union says Loy's order violates the screeners' right to organize.

"We're saying he didn't have the authority to do that," said Charles Hobbie, the union's deputy general counsel. "An agency director can't do that."

Loy's order revives memories of President Ronald Reagan's firing of nearly 11,400 unionized air traffic controllers in 1981. The controllers did not heed Reagan's order to abandon their strike that brought air travel to a standstill.

TSA's screeners, who are paid $23,600 to $35,400 a year, have not walked off the job, although reports of work slowdowns at some airports, including Pittsburgh International, have surfaced.

The Pittsburgh-based lawsuit is filed jointly by the union and a screener who works at Pittsburgh International, James Ferace, of Canonsburg, Washington County. Ferace, through the union, declined to comment.

The AFGE's separate petition for Pittsburgh International screeners to the Federal Labor Relations Authority is among the first nationwide. Screeners at La Guardia in New York City, and at airports in Chicago, Baltimore and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., also are seeking to join the union. The union intends to contact screeners at all commercial airports.

"We are going to every airport coast to coast," said Winch, AFGE's national organizer. "We are, right now, prepared to file petitions at each of the 30 largest hub airports."

Screeners at Pittsburgh contacted for this story would not comment. Hobbie, AFGE's deputy general counsel, said it's likely most screeners are reluctant to talk because they fear losing their jobs.

Screeners already have discussed pressing labor issues with the union, including problems with scheduling, overtime pay and harassment of female employees.

"Almost everybody I've talked to mentioned they're owed pay," Winch said, "and the TSA is stiffing them on overtime."

Melendez, the agency spokesman, said problems have occurred, but are not surprising because the TSA was formed only a little more than a year ago and has grown to 67,000 employees. Problems with pay have been among the most common.

"It's something the agency has acknowledged for several months," he said. "Everybody in this agency has worked many hours and has experienced problems along the way."

The AFGE is the largest union that represents federal employees, including other agencies within the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. Its membership tops 200,000.

Hobbie did not anticipate the lawsuit would be heard for a couple of months. The petition filed with the Federal Labor Relations Authority is pending, and it's not known when a decision will be rendered.

Jim Ritchie can be reached at [email protected] or (412) 320-7933.

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