PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)--A big, noisy, joyous rally -- featuring chants swinging to a drums-and-maracas beat -- celebrated the American Federation of Government Employees’ formal petition to the federal government for a representation election among 41,000 airport screeners nationwide. The rally came a day after the papers were filed.

If the union succeeds the vote, it would be the largest individual organizing victory the labor movement has had in years, AFGE President John Gage said.

The Feb. 23 mid-day rally outside AFL-CIO headquarters drew representatives from other unions, and preceded a 2-block march of the unionists to the White House. There, chanting and waving signs, they called on the Democratic Obama administration to back legislation to permanently let the screeners unionize.

The day before, Gage formally filed papers with the Federal Labor Relations Authority -- the agency that oversees labor-management relations between the U.S. government and its unions -- to let the screeners, who are all public workers, vote on whether to let AFGE formally represent them.

For almost eight years, AFGE has aided individual screeners with grievances, in arbitration hearings and before the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. AFGE also signed up 13,000 federal screeners as members in 37 locals. Screeners employed by private firms the feds hired at five airports, including Kansas City and San Francisco, can unionize under regular labor law.

But AFGE cannot be the union for the 41,000 federally employed screeners without an election. And a vote was banned, on a “national security” excuse, by prior anti-worker GOP President George W. Bush and his Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the screeners’ direct employer.

In speeches to the rally, Gage and others made it clear that Bush’s “national security” reason was a lie -- and that they are determined to overcome political opposition, led by Senate Republicans. The screener unionization issue caused so much GOP flak for Obama’s TSA nominee that he was forced to withdraw last month.

“We’re going up against the U.S. government, particularly the U.S. Senate” as an employer, Gage said, referring to so-far-unsuccessful Senate GOP attempts to write Bush’s TSA union ban into law. But Obama and his Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, have yet to formally dump Bush’s anti-union ruling.

“We have got to get ready for ‘stupid,’” Gage added. Senate Republicans “will say ‘What about national security?’ That’s an insult to the AFGE. That’s an insult to the AFL-CIO…Our members do the dirty work of protecting our nation” against terrorists.

“Your jobs are critical and you deserve a workplace that reflects it,” added Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., author of legislation to permanently overturn Bush’s anti-union ruling and let screeners always vote on union representation. “It’s no coincidence that the TSA has among the highest rates of attrition, turnover, occupational injuries, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints and lowest morale among federal agencies,” Lowey added. “We need to stop the brain drain of experienced screeners.”

AFGE’s campaign to unionize the screeners, formally called transportation security officers, is one of two big unionization drives in the airline industry and related areas. The other is the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA drive to unionize all flight attendants at the “New Delta,” now the nation’s largest airline.

“New Delta” was formed when the Bush government let non-union red-state Delta, whose management broke labor law in other AFA-CWA organizing drives, devour wall-to-wall-union blue-state Northwest Airlines. Top AFL-CIO officers Arlene Baker Holt and Liz Shuler, AFA-CWA President Pat Friend and CWA President Larry Cohen were among other speakers at the screeners rally.

Airlines “will be much safer and more secure when they’re wall-to-wall union” including the screeners, Friend said. The two organizing drives are “a message to every employer: We are fighting back and we are going to win,” Cohen added.

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