At TSA, a Waiting Game For Bargaining Rights

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009; A19

Border Patrol agents can do it. So can federal protective officers and U.S. Capitol Police. But Transportation Security Administration officers, who screen passengers at airports across the country, are not allowed to engage in collective bargaining.

The unions representing TSA employees say that one result is the agency has the lowest morale and highest attrition rate of all federal agencies, and that they are eager to see change.

They have the backing of President Obama, who promised on the campaign trail that collective bargaining and workplace protections "will be a priority" for his 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," Obama wrote in a letter to the American Federation of Government Employees in October. "Since 2001, TSA has had the unfettered ability to deny its workforce even the most basic labor rights and protections."

So far, no changes have been made. The legislation that established the agency after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, states that the decision on whether to allow collective bargaining rests with the TSA administrator.

The Obama administration has not named an administrator for TSA. The vacancy is caught up in a backlog of pending appointments to several top posts in the agencies supervised by the Department of Homeland Security.

"We're sort of in a holding pattern, waiting for DHS or the administration to take some action," said Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for AFGE. "We're very confident they will get bargaining rights, but obviously the sooner the better, because things are not getting better there."

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told the House Homeland Security Committee in February that she had asked her general counsel's office to review whether she has the authority to grant collective bargaining rights to TSA employees.

There has been no indication that she does. "I'm not aware of any changes at this point in time," said Amy Kudwa, a spokeswoman for the department.

Under the Bush administration, DHS warned that collective bargaining rights could endanger travelers by adding a layer of labor union negotiations to TSA operations.

Opponents of collective bargaining maintain that the TSA must be able to quickly alter security procedures in response to threats and warned that collective bargaining would force the agency to negotiate changes with union representatives, compromising TSA's ability to respond in emergencies.

But supporters -- including Obama -- note that other federal law enforcement officers have collective bargaining rights. "Collective bargaining rights ensure that federal agencies run as effectively as possible and are able to focus on protecting our national security," Obama wrote in his letter to the AFGE.

In testimony to a congressional committee last month, AFGE President John Gage called it an "insult, really, to the labor movement to say that somehow having the right to belong to a union somehow affects national security."

The unions are pressing for Congress to repeal a footnote to the Aviation and Transportation Security Act that places discretion over collective bargaining in the hands of the TSA administrator.

A recent survey by the Office of Personnel Management found that 40 percent of TSA workers fear retaliation if they report suspicions of violations.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in congressional testimony last month that TSA employees face a hostile work environment, that job assignments are based on favoritism, and that officers are routinely at the airports 11 to 14 hours a day and get paid for only eight hours because of split shift assignments. Staffing levels at some airports are so low that employees work extra shifts, without breaks, and work on their days off, she said.

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