Over the years, federal employee unions have lobbied for their constituents on everything ranging from pay parity to paid parental leave. At the heart of all those issues is the unions' push to ensure the majority of the federal workforce has collective bargaining rights. The latest crusade of the two largest unions -- the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees -- involves extending collective bargaining rights to some employees at the Transportation Security Administration, Veterans Affairs Department, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The global outbreak of swine flu has provided an opportunity for both unions to call attention to the work TSA employees perform. AFGE President John Gage has written to Gale Rossides, acting TSA administrator, while NTEU President Colleen Kelley has been talking to officials at the Homeland Security Department, Customs and Border Protection, and TSA about the public health risks transportation security officers face.
Union officials have pointed out that the recommendation from the Office of Personnel Management that employees stay at least six feet away from people showing signs of illness might not be possible for TSA workers who have to screen passengers and check their airplane boarding passes. Gage and Kelley have called on the agency to lift the ban on face masks for TSOs who work at checkpoints and to make respirators and hand-sanitizing stations more readily available.
But arguing for TSA employees' collective bargaining rights has been a longtime effort by NTEU and AFGE with the expectation that if they succeed, those workers will join their organizations. When TSA was created in 2001, Congress left to the agency's administrator the decision to determine whether employees could bargain over personnel policies. Under President Bush, TSA leaders decided not to extend collective bargaining rights to the workforce, and union leaders have been pushing to change the law and the positions of the agency's leaders ever since.
In early April, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., introduced the 2009 Transportation Security Workforce Enhancement Act (H.R. 1881), which would codify collective bargaining rights for TSA employees. Lowey has met with AFGE members and appeared at union events to boost the bill. NTEU, which also consulted with Lowey on the bill, has campaigned for members of Congress to co-sponsor the legislation.
Both unions also hope Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will determine that she has the authority to grant TSA workers collective bargaining rights. But even if she makes that decision, AFGE and NTEU will continue to push for legislation so her decision could not be reversed by a subsequent administration.
TSA isn't the only agency where unions want collective bargaining rights expanded. AFGE is supporting a bill that would provide those rights to doctors, registered nurses and dentists at VA. And NTEU is hoping President Obama will reverse a Bush administration executive order that rescinded the collective bargaining rights of ATF employees.
It's not clear when Congress and President Obama might move on any of these changes as they seek to address other priorities. Even with a new team at OPM that is sympathetic to some of their positions, federal employee unions will continue to find ways to have their say.