New TSA chief gets pressure on collective bargaining

Now that the Transportation Security Administration chief has had about a month to settle into his job, unions and some lawmakers are starting to make more noise on collective bargaining rights for airport screeners.

On Thursday, National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley encouraged members of Congress to sign a letter asking TSA Administrator John Pistole to review agency policies and to "strongly consider providing comprehensive workplace and employment rights," including veterans preference and whistleblower protection in addition to collective bargaining.

The letter, drafted by Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., agued such rights would help address low morale and high rates of attrition, injury and discrimination complaints within the screener workforce. Thompson and Lowey's 2009 Transportation Security Workforce Enhancement Act (H.R. 1881), which would allow Transportation Security officers to negotiate workplace conditions, has gathered nearly 150 co-sponsors.

According to the law that created TSA after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, collective bargaining rights can be granted only by the agency's administrator. But before Pistole's confirmation on June 25, the agency had been without an administrator since President Obama took office. Pistole was Obama's third nominee for the position. During his confirmation hearing, Pistole, former deputy director of the FBI, did not take a stand on bargaining rights for TSA employees.

During a Wednesday House committee hearing on safety at federal agencies, unions including the American Federation of Government Employees -- NTEU's rival in the campaign to unionize TSA employees -- stressed collective bargaining rights would be essential for employees to secure better workplace conditions.

"AFGE is pleased to see increased attention being paid to workplace safety and health, but there is room for improvement," AFGE Occupational Health and Safety Specialist Milly Rodriguez told the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia on Wednesday. Rodriguez noted concerns over the levels of ionizing radiation to which TSA employees might be exposed as result of their proximity to the X-ray machines at airport security checkpoints.

According to TSA, the agency has completed testing required to rule out unsafe levels of radiation. TSA refused AFGE's offer to conduct independent research on the topic, the union said. The agency also declined AFGE's offer to provide airport screeners with personal docimeters to monitor levels of radiation, saying only TSA-provided docimeters were permitted, according to the union.

"While TSA may have done the testing necessary to show that the levels of radiation emitted from the screening equipment are below action levels, their lack of response and their failure to address employee concerns beg the question, what are they hiding?" Rodriguez said. "Why has TSA been unwilling to share the results with employees, and with us, their representative?"

A representative from NETU listed high levels of toxic emissions from forklifts and cargo tugs, as well as X-ray machines, as dangers TSA employees face daily. Two studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health revealed dangerously high levels of emissions, testified Maureen Gilman, director of legislation for NTEU. "Despite these NIOSH recommendations, our members have not seen any personal radiation testing done," she said.

Gilman also identified hot and noisy baggage screening areas and injuries resulting from heavy lifting and standing for long periods as other union concerns.

Wednesday's hearing addressed President Obama's Protecting Our Workers and Ensuring Reemployment initiative, announced on Monday. POWER calls on federal agencies to address employees' safety concerns in the workplace.

"The POWER Initiative is truly a win-win for the federal workforce and the American taxpayer," William Dougan, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said in a statement on Tuesday. "Reducing the number of workplace injuries and illness makes the government a safer and more productive place to work. Workplace safety is a very serious issue for us, and we are pleased to see President Obama make it a priority to his administration."

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