Labor Leaders Ask Congress to Allow TSA to Unionize

Labor Leaders Ask Congress to Allow TSA to Unionize
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff

Labor leaders who appeared before a House Homeland Security subcommittee Thursday brought the same message they’ve been repeating for years: Screeners who work for the Transportation Security Administration need collective bargaining rights.

There was a key difference this time around, however: President George W. Bush’s promise of a veto is gone.

That drew comment from Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, who appeared before the House Homeland Subcommittee on Management, Investigations, and Oversight to support collective bargaining.

“I believe the new administration will address these problems, the remnants of the Bush administration,” Kelley said.

The collective bargaining debate dates to creation of TSA. The post-9/11 legislation (PL 107-71) that formed the agency allowed it to set the terms and conditions of employing screeners. Despite labor’s opposition to the hiring provision, the Bush administration said it allowed the flexibility needed to staff the agency quickly with tens of thousands of workers.

Since then, TSA’s airport screeners have been prohibited from forming a union, although workers at other Department of Homeland Security agencies have done so.

The House and Senate versions of the 9/11 Commission legislation (PL 110-53) in 2007 contained provisions to give screeners collective bargaining rights, but they were taken out of the final version under Bush’s veto threat.

The hearing focused only on labor groups’ perspectives, however, and failed to bring anyone from DHS before the panel. Ranking member Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., noted the omission with dismay.

“I will say that I am disappointed that the department was not invited to testify here today,” Bilirakis said. “I am interested in learning more about its plans to improve and support the department’s workforce and I hope that we will have a follow up hearing on this issue in the future.”

Subcommittee Chairman Christopher Carney, D-Penn., said the panel plans to hold a hearing with Tom Cairns, DHS’s chief human capital officer.

When the subcommittee calls, DHS will be ready to attend, spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said.

“We understand that today’s hearing was about information gathering,” she said. “We stand ready to appear before the committee when requested.”

The witnesses at the hearing painted an unappealing picture of TSA’s management. Kelley described security screeners as overworked, underpaid and unrewarded for good work. “TSA has the dubious distinction of having the lowest morale of all federal agencies,” and the highest attrition and on-the-job injury rate, Kelley said.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called for legislation to allow screeners to unionize. TSA’s current pay-for-performance system was “a failure,” Gage said.

New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell Jr., focused on the issue in his remarks, saying security screeners “get the short end of the stick” when it comes to their rights.

“It’s no wonder, then, that the level of morale and retention ... for the employees at TSA are the lowest within DHS, I don’t care what scale you use,” Pascrell said, adding, “Yet we expect these folks to be the first and last line of defense against terror.”

Pascrell said after the hearing that the new administration was an opportunity to make changes.

“We’re working on that,” he said.

Witnesses expressed a number of labor concerns over training, opportunities, pay and management. Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said personnel issues at DHS have improved at a faster rate than any other department in recent years, but, “The flip-side is that they had a heck of a lot of distance to travel, and as much as they moved, the numbers are frankly still not good enough.”

While the latest Office of Personnel and Management numbers say 66 percent of DHS employees are satisfied with their jobs, just 34 percent say their leaders draw a high level of commitment from them.

The department’s numbers show 72 percent of its senior executives left between fiscal 2004 and 2007.

“That to me is just scary,” Stier said.

The department and federal government in general needs to make personnel a higher priority.

“The tendency is for political leaders to focus on crisis management and policy development,” he said, adding that human capital is something to which DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano should pay attention, not just department human resources staff.

Rob Margetta can be reached at [email protected]

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