Decision to keep federal screeners at Calif. airport has national implications

It’s not everyday that the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors gives a national federal labor union based in Washington something to brag about.

But the folks in the Northern California wine country gave the American Federation of Government Employees reason to toast the board’s decision Tuesday to withdraw its application to use private screeners at Sacramento International Airport.

AFGE represents about 45,000 transportation security officers, federal employees who screen passengers and baggage at almost all of the nation’s airports. At 16 airports, often smaller facilities, the screening duties generally are done by nonunion employees of private firms. Airports in San Francisco and Kansas City, which have private, unionized screeners, are exceptions.

Republicans in Congress have repeatedly pushed for more privatization. AFGE and its Democratic allies have constantly pushed back. The Sacramento decision is an important victory in labor’s effort to combat privatization efforts generally.

“AFGE is very pleased that the Sacramento Board recognizes the value in a federal workforce at TSA [Transportation Security Administration] and has revoked its previous approval for privatization,” AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. said. “The Sacramento airport authority’s attempt to abandon its public servants in favor of corporations with only profit in mind was short-sighted at best. There simply are some functions too important to be left to companies that would be unaccountable to the American people, and securing American skies is definitely one of them.”

“It was a contract workforce that gave us 9/11,” he added. “It wasn’t a union workforce.” At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the airports used private contractors to screen passengers.

The board voted 4 to 1 to cancel its request to TSA, made last January, for private contractors. At the time, the now-retired airport director was instrumental in convincing the board that a private contractor would improve the scheduling of screeners, according to Supervisor Phil Serna.

But during the past year, there was “very little evidence produced .?.?. that there is any advantage to privatizing the screeners,” Serna said. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) study helped convince supervisors that there was no need to upset the status quo. Supervisor Susan Peters, the lone vote in favor of continuing the privatization process, could not be reached for comment.

During the year since the board initially decided to seek privatization, AFGE rallied its allies in organized labor and lobbied supervisors, city council members and state legislators in an attempt to block the plan.

“We had several meetings with the individual supervisors during the past year,” said James Mudrock, president of Local 1230 at the Sacramento airport. “This all took place over a long period of time, but we continued to stay on it. We had to change some minds.”

The union initially had one supervisor whose support was certain and another who was a maybe, so “we felt we had to do some work on the others,” Mudrock added.

TSA did not take a position in the debate, but the testimony of Kimberley Siro, the airport’s federal security director, apparently helped convince supervisors that privatization was not necessary. She told the board about greater TSA flexibility in scheduling screeners so they could be available during high-traffic periods, according to Linda Cutler, an airport spokeswoman.

Siro could not be reached for comment, but Cutler said, “Our local TSA is becoming very customer-focused. .?.?. Those customer service considerations were a big part of our request” to use private screeners.

Another factor in the board’s decision was the GAO report, issued in December. It said TSA does not compare performance by private and federal screeners, so there was no data indicating that privatization works better.

A staff recommendation from the county’s Department of Airports to the board said, “GAO found insufficient evidence to draw any conclusions of improved performance under SPP [Screening Partnership Program] when compared to federal screening services.

“In conclusion, the GAO findings suggest that the County’s participation in SPP may not be necessary to realize the original benefits anticipated.”

In any case, the debate over private or federal screeners “is a red herring,” according to Richard Bloom, an airport security expert and chief academic officer with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

“This whole public/private thing has more to do with political ideology,” he said. The real issue in screener performance is training, motivation and management, he added, saying screeners “can do a great job or a horrible job regardless” of their employer.

Nonetheless, the public/private debate will continue.

“I commend the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors for making the decision to withdraw its application to replace its federal screener workforce with privatized contractors,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. He favors federal screeners and urged “other airport operators considering the switch to contracted screeners to first consider the findings of GAO’s recent report.”

Republican Reps. John Mica (Fla.) and Mike D. Rogers (Ala.), who favor greater privatization, did not respond to requests for comment.

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