Focus on airport security, not politics

This past Christmas, more than eight years after 9-11, Americans were faced with a sobering reminder that the threat of Islamic terrorists is still very real. The attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to kill the passengers of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as they neared Detroit was thankfully unsuccessful, but it reminds us that we cannot afford to undermine the safety of Americans as they travel by air.

Sadly, the Obama administration and its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill haven’t learned the lesson of the Christmas bomber and are still intent on implementing policies that will significantly weaken airport security.

Since the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created after the 9-11 attacks to screen luggage and passengers at airports nationwide, TSA administrators have consistently opposed collective bargaining for its employees, citing serious security concerns. Yet, even though the 9-11 Commission never recommended it, President Obama and Democrats in Congress appear intent on forcing all 50,000 airport screeners nationwide to join a union through collective bargaining.

Today, screeners are permitted to choose to join a union, but collective bargaining would mean that union bosses would represent every TSA screener and security officials would be forced to negotiate with union bosses before making critical and timely security decisions. Basically, the same union bureaucracy that has crippled the American auto industry and made service at Post Offices and the DMV the punch line to jokes could soon be a way of life at America’s airports.

The impact on aviation security resulting from a fully-unionized screener workforce is tremendous.

Consider how the TSA system works now. When the plot by terrorists from the UK was uncovered in 2006, new rules on carrying liquids onboard went into effect within 12 hours. If TSA had been unionized then, officials would have had to first ask permission of union bosses. And if the unions decided the changes were too burdensome on their employees, weeks or months of negotiations could have ensued, before any changes were made. Even in their recent response to the attempt by Abdulmutallab, TSA officials reassigned staff and changed screening procedures within hours, a quick move that would be nearly impossible under collective bargaining with union bosses.

The terrorists are not going to hold their fire while TSA and the American Federation of Government Employees figure out a work schedule that everyone likes.

Further, TSA managers currently promote on merit — as opposed to seniority — ensuring that the best and brightest at the agency are entrusted with more responsibility. They are now also able to discipline employees, which is exactly what happened when TSA immediately suspended the 5 individuals responsible for posting a classified security manual online.

And more security leaks would be a near certainty under collective bargaining because it would force the TSA to share sensitive intelligence information to third parties to explain changes in new work requirements in negotiations with union bosses.

It’s for these same national security concerns that we do not allow the CIA, FBI, Secret Service or Coast Guard to collectively bargain.

Unionization could also lengthen wait times in screening lines for travelers nationwide. When the Senate debated and eventually stopped TSA unionization in 2007, the agency told me that they would be forced to move 3,500 screeners off of security lines immediately to set up the new infrastructure required by collective bargaining. This would have closed 250 security screening lanes nationwide and likely doubled passenger wait time at airports.

I asked Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano about this issue during a hearing in November, and she openly admitted that she and the president intend to unionize the TSA. I then asked how forcing TSA to negotiate with union bosses would improve the safety of American travelers. She couldn’t give a single example.

That’s because this isn’t about improving security, its about political kickbacks to union bosses who bankrolled the Democrats 2008 election campaigns. In fact, while seeking the endorsement of the American Federation of Government Employees, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, then-candidate Obama promised to force TSA screeners to join the AFGE if he were elected.

While Democrats are suddenly feigning concern over the direction of TSA, they should first direct their criticism to President Obama, who ignored the agency for 243 days until he finally nominated Erroll Southers to head it in September. Unfortunately if you believe Mr. Southers’ answers to simple questions I posed to him a few weeks ago, you’d have to conclude he really has no good idea how to manage the agency.

I asked Mr. Southers whether he had an opinion about the propriety of unionizing the TSA workforce. His answer was, “Forming an opinion at this time would be premature.” Really? The president’s formed an opinion, the Secretary of Homeland Security has formed an opinion, I’ve formed an opinion, the unions have formed an opinion, nearly every senator and House member has formed an opinion and the even The Washington Post has formed an opinion (they oppose unionization, by the way). It seems that the only person who pays any attention to TSA who hasn’t formed an opinion is Erroll Southers, the man who wants to run the agency.

Because of the al-Qaida Christmas attack, I will continue to seek a public Senate debate and vote on this nominee. The American people deserve to know whether he values their safety more than the interests of organized labor.

Our TSA screening system is must be improved as the Christmas attack exposed security gaps that must be closed. But the last thing we should do is weaken security based on a political kickback that could make it easier for terrorists to avoid detection. Aviation security decisions must not be subjected to the veto and approval of those who write the biggest campaign checks.

Additional Facts
Jim DeMint, a Republican from Greenville, was elected as South Carolina's 55th U.S. senator in November 2004. For more information go to

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