Board boosts airport screeners' bid to vote on union representation

Washington (CNN) -- Airport security screeners, boosted by a decision Friday by a top federal labor board, could soon be able to bargain collectively.

The Federal Labor Relations Authority found "no support for the argument" of a U.S. Transportation Department official during President George W. Bush's administration that allowing screeners to bargain could threaten national security.

The labor board said that Transportation Security Administration employees had the right to elect people to represent them, but stopped short of saying they would be allowed to bargain on their behalf. That decision -- on whether the screeners will be able to collectively bargain -- now rests with TSA Administrator John Pistole, the board concluded.

In congressional testimony on September 23, Pistole said that his agency is reviewing whether the screeners, also known as transportation security officers, should receive collective bargaining rights. He said that review is "nearly complete," and should be done in "weeks, rather than months."

The issue has sharply divided legislators for years, with Democrats backing screeners' right to bargain collectively and Republicans opposing the prospect. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, cited the prospect last year when he held up the nomination of President Barack Obama's first pick to lead the Transportation Security Administration, saying unionization would slow the agency's responsiveness.

A 2001 stated that federal administration officials would set the pay and other benefits of airport screeners. Two years later, Under Secretary of Transportation James Loy wrote a memo stating that screeners could not "engage in collective bargaining" or join unions "in light of their critical national security responsibilities."

The American Federation of Government Employees, the nation's largest union of federal employees, filed a complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, claiming the screeners should be allowed to collectively bargain via a union. The National Treasury Employees Union later joined its union counterpart in fighting for unionization rights.

Both are hoping to represent the transportation security officers.

In press releases, both unions applauded the labor board's decision and expressed hopes that the transportation security administrator would approve screeners' collective bargaining rights.

"(Airport screeners) have waited long enough for both formal representation in the workplace and for the same collective bargaining rights held by" border patrol, immigration, emergency management and other federal officials, said American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage.

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