Posted on December 29, 2009, Printed on December 29, 2009
If President Obama wants to shift the debate on what the administration should have done to prevent the attempted terrorist attack last week on a U.S. passenger plane, he'll take a stand an make a recess appointment of his nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration, which today exists without a permanent chief in place.
Why? Because Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has put a hold on the nomination to express the GOP's opposition to the unionization of TSA screeners, which Obama supports.
DeMint, a favorite of the Tea Party crowd, has been one of Obama's most vitriolic self-appointed nemeses since the president took office. His beef with Obama over the president's nomination of Erroll Southers for TSA chief administrator is the president's promise to allow TSA screeners to collectively bargain, a fundamental right forbidden them by the Bush administration.
DeMint makes a bogus argument about collective bargaining somehow being a threat to public safety when, in fact, it would actually be a boon to public safety. Absent collective bargaining rights, TSA screeners risk disciplinary action or firing for complaining about a supervisor, even if that supervisor puts the public at risk by his or her actions.
I know this for a fact. As a member of the communications team at the American Federation of Government Employees from 2001-2005, I worked with AFGE team that was organizing TSA screeners, despite the union's inability to represent the TSA workers in negotiation with the administration. To explain the union's unethically thwarted status, I used to tell reporters that the union represented TSA screeners "in the courts of law and public opinion."
The tales I heard from screeners of abuse by their supervisors was sometimes harrowing, and often put the public at risk. Screeners were made to work end-to-end shifts and mandatory overtime, resulting in the kind of fatigue that impedes alterness. I was told by screeners of a lack of adequate staffing and equipment for explosives screening, lack of gloves for hand-inspection of luggage, and at-will firings by politically motivated supervisors. Basically, any complaint by a screener -- even because she felt the public had been put a risk -- could result in her firing.
Despite this risk, screeners represented by AFGE sometimes spoke out, as in 2003, when Seattle, Washington's Sea-Tac was found to be rife with mismanagement by the federal security officer, Bob Blunk. As described in a November 2004 Seattle Times article:
Last December, more than 200 screeners sent a petition to their congressional representatives alleging promotion irregularities and a climate that threatened public safety. TSA's internal affairs department investigated and in April removed the top four security managers at the airport.
So much for unionized workers posing a threat to national security. But who knows how many TSA workers, lacking the security of collective bargaining, have sat on their hands in the face of mismanagement at other airports?
The Bush administration's opposition to union representation for TSA workers had nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with obstructing public accountability. Collective bargaining makes for consistency in the setting of work rules and basic procedures, and creates procedures that protect workers from arbitrary firings for whistleblowing.
Jim DeMint's opposition to unions is likely more electoral in nature. The unions, after all, tend to turn out the vote for Democrats.
Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.