Labor-Management Talks a First for TSA

Friday, July 24, 2009

It's not unusual for labor and management to talk about their differences. But when Transportation Security Administration officials met with union leaders Thursday, they described the session as "historic."

It was the first-ever formal labor-management meeting between the agency and the union and the beginning of what labor leaders hope will be a relationship that could lead to TSA employees winning the right to collective bargaining in the near future.

Labor leaders, shut out during the Bush administration, placed gaining collective bargaining rights for transportation security officers -- the screeners who make sure no one takes dangerous items on airplanes -- at the top of their agenda when the Obama administration took office.

"The past eight years with the Bush administration have been an uphill battle, and we are finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel," said American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage.

Currently, unions can recruit officers as members, but labor organizations do not have the right to bargain on their behalf. Congress is considering legislation that would provide that ability.

The four-hour afternoon meeting with AFGE and another one scheduled for Tuesday with the National Treasury Employees Union foreshadow a battle between the two labor organizations. At some point soon, they hope, they'll begin campaigns to determine which one will eventually represent the officers.

The AFGE meeting included eight screeners from across the country in addition to union leaders from the national office. "Our TSOs [transportation security officers] were the stars of this meeting," Gage said. "They shared real-life experiences of what it means to work on the front line for airport security. They used their collective voices to tell the stories of their TSO co-workers. It was a privilege to be part of such a courageous and powerful group of union leaders."

Ricky McCoy, the lead TSO at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and president of AFGE Local 777, said agency officials "were real receptive to what we were talking about." The officials, however, would not discuss granting collective bargaining rights administratively, as union leaders would like them to do, according to McCoy.

Topics on the agenda included leave policies, disciplinary actions and the agency's pay-for- performance system, which has been the target of union criticism.

Those issues are sure to be part of the campaign the two unions are in effect already waging to become the bargaining agent. A statement by Gage highlights the coming confrontation between the two unions: "AFGE is the only union that can truthfully and proudly say that it has been fighting for collective bargaining for the entire eight years TSA has been in existence."

The NTEU has not been quiet as it awaits its meeting. It issued a news release saying it is "engaged in an aggressive TSA organizing campaign and already represents thousands of TSOs at major airports around the country."

NTEU has a five-point plan that includes granting baggage screeners the same level of whistleblower rights that other federal employees enjoy.

Whistleblower rights also were discussed for those on the last line of defense for air security, air marshals, at a hearing Thursday morning by the House Homeland Security subcommittee on management, investigations and oversight. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) asked Robert Bray, director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, why air marshals who were fired "for bringing to light issues that were later found to be valid" have not been returned to service.

Pascrell specifically mentioned the case of Robert MacLean, an air marshal who was fired in 2006 after he revealed that the TSA plans to stop sending marshals on long-haul flights because the agency did not want to pay their overnight expenses. MacLean is "still twisting in the wind," Bray said during an interview. "I think it's very unfair."

Bray would not discuss the specifics of MacLean's case, but he said the agency fully supports the Whistleblower Protection Act. That law, however, has been declared dead by whistleblower advocates because of court and Merit System Protection Board interpretations. Congress now is considering measures to strengthen the law.

Pascrell praised Bray, who has been in his position just over one year, for workplace improvements at the agency under his leadership, but he said progress "won't be complete until they bring the whistleblowers back to work."

Contact Joe Davidson at [email protected]

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