Obama Plan to Grant TSA Workers More Union Rights Renews Debate Over Security Effect

By Amanda Ruggeri
Posted November 20, 2008
The Transportation Security Administration received a big promise in one of the nine letters that Barack Obama sent to federal agencies before his election—that he will fight for collective bargaining for TSA workers.

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Obama's statement, which says that making good on his long-held stance will be a "priority" for his administration, may reignite an old battle.

At stake, say opponents, is public safety. Their concern is that TSA's flexibility in responding to emergencies would be limited by having to come to collective agreement before shifting workers, altering procedures, or changing schedules. The head of TSA, Edmund "Kip" Hawley, has testified that collective bargaining "would not provide the flexibility required to wage war against terrorism."

But not everyone agrees.

"What does this have to do with anything other than fair pay for fair work?" says Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for the telecom group BT. "There is no security reason. This is just plain dumb."

Supporters of the change, like Schneier, point out that other workers deemed responsible for public safety—like police and firemen—are heavily unionized. And many other federal employees, including those who deal with national security like border patrol agents and customs officers, have the right to collectively bargain.

"In 9/11, the first responders all were organized, and there wasn't one grievance filed. There wasn't one problem," says Emily Ryan, spokesperson for the American Federation of Government Employees, which has been fighting for collective bargaining for the TSA. "It's a lame excuse to block these workers from having workplace rights."

Opponents say that TSA workers already have key rights. They're allowed to join unions, which can represent them at disciplinary and other personnel proceedings. Whistle-blowers and those who allege discrimination are protected, they say.

In the past, the security argument has won out. Last year, in the face of a presidential veto threat and strong Republican opposition, a provision that would have granted TSA workers collective bargaining rights was dropped from a national security bill.

But proponents say that the final agreement to set up collective bargaining can ensure flexibility in emergency situations, as have agreements for similar professions. Besides, they say, it hasn't been argued that protection of the public by police or firefighters will be altered by unionizing. "And yet," says Richard Hurd, a Cornell University professor of industrial and labor relations, "for some reason, the workers who check luggage at airports somehow are not as trustworthy if they're represented by unions. It just doesn't make much sense."

Potential effects on flexibility depend on the mind-set of the union, says Stewart Verdery, former DHS assistant secretary for policy and planning. "If the union is willing to work with them on having flexibility on staffing and duties, then it could work," he says. "If they are trying to make life difficult for the federal security directors who run the airports, then it could be a major problem for TSA's mission."

But as for strikes—one of the big worries of critics—they'd be simply illegal, as they are for all federal employees. That's something air traffic controllers learned the hard way in 1981, when all of those who continued to fail to report to work were fired. Similarly, although police are some of the most heavily unionized workers, disruptions of their services are rare. In his almost 40 years of studying labor relations, says Hurd, he doesn't recall ever seeing an instance in which police or firefighters endangered public safety as part of labor negotiations.

Some say that collective bargaining could even improve the TSA. The agency's attrition rates have been falling, but they're still high—voluntary attritions are at nearly 17 percent, compared with a little over 2 percent for other federal civilian employees. And their injury and illness rate is nearly six times that of those working other federal jobs. If they can negotiate better working situations, say advocates, then more skilled, educated workers will be attracted to the job—and stay there longer.

But overall, the effect of a collective bargaining agreement on security would, most likely, be negligible.

"No one would notice, including me," says Hurd. "The only thing you might notice is that you might see someone, on occasion, with a lapel pin saying that they're union."

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