Federal Employees' Union Targets New Airport Screeners

The American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO has already contacted screeners at most of the nation's major airports, according to Peter Winch, national organizer.

"We've been to all of them I think, except Anchorage [Alaska] at this point, about 18 'first wave' airports that are going to go federal first," he said. The union hopes to gain interest among the airport screeners and then "start committees ... among the existing workforce."

Winch says AFGE is operating on the assumption that the Transportation Security Administration will hire from among the existing civilian screener workforce whenever possible.

Officials revealed Wednesday that 65,000 new employees will likely be hired by the TSA, more than double the number presented to Congress when it was considering the bill passed in November of last year.

"It's too many," said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee. "There would have to be a really good justification for that, which I have not seen yet."

Winch says whether the number is 30,000 - as originally proposed - or 65,000, the new federal employees should have all the rights of other federal employees, including union protection.

"[Undersecretary of Transportation for Security John] Magaw has said specifically that he does not want this workforce to have full whistle-blower protection," he said. "We think that they go together. The right to have a union and the right to have whistleblower protection go together and they do for federal employees in other agencies."

AFGE has setup a special website for current screeners who may be going to work for the federal government.

While the union sees the federalization of screeners as an opportunity to expand its membership, others are not as excited about that prospect.

Dan Cronin with the National Right to Work Foundation says he's not surprised that the number of potential new union members has more than doubled.

"Big government types love to see that. They love to estimate one number and then have it balloon up to another number," he said. "It doesn't shock me that a bill that the unions were really behind, that they would be happy about [this]."

Magaw has the final decision-making authority under the law that created the TSA to determine whether it's employees will be eligible for collective bargaining, whistle-blower protection, and other union benefits.

Winch claims opponents of the union are trying to mislead the public about one option available to many union members, but not to federal employees.

"Strikes are not allowed in the government. No federal employee is allowed to strike by law," he explained, "and in fact the law that set up the TSA reiterated that, we thought, unnecessarily."

But Cronin says the presence of the union always presents the threat of a strike, legal or not, and there's no one else to call if the airport screeners walk off the job.

"If they go on strike, what are you going to do?" he asked. "They've got you over a barrel."

Striking in violation of the federal law usually results only in fines and Cronin says many unions have special accounts to pay such assessments and other strike-related costs on behalf of their employees.

"They're providing an essential service that has to be there. They just can't walk off the job anytime they feel like it," he added. "You could be putting thousands of people in a dangerous situation if there's not an adequate level of people there."

Winch says meetings between AFGE representatives, Magaw, and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta have been "basically positive." He says the TSA is expected to make a decision about what union options will be available to federal screeners by the end of the year.

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June 2014

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