Although Congress hasn’t yet decided whether to allow collective bargaining rights for Transportation Security Administration workers, one union has said it’s tired of waiting — setting off the latest skirmish in a fight that has gone on for years between two labor powerhouses over the homeland security workforce.
The American Federation of Government Employees announced Monday that it plans to petition the Federal Labor Relations Authority for an election to make it the exclusive union representative for transportation security officers. The union says it already counts 13,000 officers at more than 100 airports as members, representing them in court and before TSA review boards.
The move came despite the fact that unions are still legally prohibited from engaging in collective bargaining for transportation security officers. And while congressional Democrats and the White House have talked about overturning that restriction, there are still plenty who oppose the idea.
“We’re kind of sick of waiting for the bargaining rights to come through,” said AFGE communications specialist Emily Ryan.
If the union were established as the workers’ sole representative, it would be able to lay the groundwork for collective bargaining in the future, Ryan said.
“We do still think it will happen — that workers will get those rights — even though it’s taking longer than expected,” she said.
Just hours after the AFGE made its announcement, the National Treasury Employees Union said it, too, is ready to file for an election of its own if the Federal Labor Relations Authority grants the AFGE request. Like the AFGE, the NTEU also says it represents thousands of TSA workers at 40 airports in court and disciplinary proceedings.
The NTEU’s leadership expressed doubts, however, about voting on sole representation before Congress makes a decision on collective bargaining.
“Should the FLRA determine that this petition is valid, NTEU is ready to compete for and win a union election in TSA,” NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said. “However, we question the timing of pursuing exclusive representative status without the existence of collective bargaining rights. More specifically, we question how having an exclusive representative, without collective bargaining, will bring about real, meaningful improvements to [transportation security officers’] work lives. . . . It is unclear what an exclusive representative would mean under this structure,”
An NTEU news release noted that the AFGE filed a similar petition in 2003, which failed. AFGE President John Gage said that petition may have been rejected by a 2-1 vote, but the dissenter is now chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority. If the authority’s regional director in Washington rejects the current petition, the AFGE will take it to the full board, he said.
A History of Competition
Competition between the AFGE and the NTEU over the representation of homeland security workers is nothing new. Although they have maintained solidarity over their mutual desire for increased bargaining and unionization rights at the Department of Homeland Security, they have spent years jockeying over enrollment numbers.
The two worked together on a lawsuit to derail DHS’s “MaxHR” personnel system, which would have taken collective bargaining rights from workers in other areas of the department. The unions’ efforts were successful; in 2008, DHS dropped MaxHR after Congress passed legislation (PL 110-161) crippling the department’s ability to fund the initiative. Additionally, the unions have been united in blaming the lack of collective bargaining at TSA for high turnover, low employee morale and other issues with the agency’s staff.
But even as they worked against MaxHR, their battles with each other continued. In 2004, Customs and Border Protection filed for an election to establish a single union for all of its 21,000 non-Border Patrol employees. In the vote, the AFGE, which favored joint representation, lost out to the NTEU.
The competition over CBP set the two as rivals, but the AFGE sees the TSA situation playing out in its favor.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a competition,” Ryan said. “We’ve been there for eight years. We believe we’re the union of choice.”
The NTEU’s Kelley saw the situation differently.
“I am very pleased with our organizing efforts and confident that NTEU’s message is being widely heard among the TSA workforce,” she said. One of her union’s strengths, she said, is its policy of not charging dues until it establishes local chapters at airports with local leadership in place.
If the petition is approved, the winner of an election could depend on who currently represents the most workers. In the CBP’s case, 12,000 workers — more than half the available pool — had already signed with the NTEU. While the AFGE said it represents 13,000 transportation security officers, the NTEU said it could not give a firm number. It did say it has thousands of TSA employees as members, with thousands more indicating interest.
Collective Bargaining Still Questionable
Collective bargaining has been one of the hottest TSA-related topics in Congress since the Obama administration took office, with rhetoric that has progressively escalated between advocates and opponents.
The prohibition on collective bargaining dates back to the legislation that created TSA (PL 107-71), which allowed the agency to set the terms of airport screeners’ employment. The George W. Bush administration maintained the policy, saying it needed the freedom to change screeners’ employment conditions or move them around the country as needed. The Obama administration has been more receptive to the idea of granting the workers collective bargaining rights, with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano saying that power can be adopted without a sacrifice in security.
It’s one area where the AFGE and NTEU remain united.
“The need for these workers to have a voice is just a necessity,” Gage said.
Kelley said that while she doesn’t agree with the timing behind the AFGE petition, she understands the motivation.
“It has taken far too long for these employees to gain the basic workplace rights they deserve,” she said, adding later that “collective bargaining is by far the best way to provide a meaningful voice for employees in their workplace.”
Several congressional Democrats have thrown their support behind collective bargaining. Both the House Homeland Security and Oversight and Government Reform committees approved a bill (HR 1881) last year to grant screeners those rights. The legislation has not moved to the floor for a vote.
Reps. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, have signed on to appear at an AFGE rally on Tuesday calling on Napolitano to grant TSA workers collective bargaining rights. Staff for both members indicated they are in favor of collective bargaining in general, not AFGE’s bid for sole representation.
But some Republicans have stuck to the Bush administration’s line of thinking, saying that impeding TSA’s freedom to employ screening officers as it sees fit would create a national security risk.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., placed a hold on the nomination of President Obama’s nominee to head TSA, Erroll G. Southers, out of concern that Southers favored unionization. Facing holds from several other Republicans and questions about his background, Southers eventually dropped out.
DeMint remains an opponent of unionization, but a member of his staff said the recent moves by the AFGE and NTEU were predictable.
“It’s no surprise,” spokesman Wesley Denton said. “The president made a promise to the unions during his campaign that he would force through unionization at TSA, even if it presented a serious security issue.”
Both unions oppose the notion that they would create a security risk at TSA.
Gage criticized what he called “outrageous statements” by members of Congress about the potential impact of granting TSA workers collective bargaining rights. He said it was “an insult” to suggest union workers are “not to be trusted in a national security situation” and noted the AFGE already represented ICE, Border Patrol and Defense Department personnel.
“The burden has to be on that particular senator,” Gage said. “Let him demonstrate why being in a union affects national security.”