The largest federal union organizing election is not over yet.
Like two heavyweight boxers battling to a draw, neither the American Federation of Government Employees nor the National Treasury Employees Union won a majority of votes in the election to represent transportation security officers.
The plain Federal Labor Relations Authority multipurpose room was quiet Wednesday afternoon as Jean Perata, the authority’s assistant to the general counsel for representation cases, read the tally and told representatives of the unions that each had failed to win the majority needed for victory.
Out of 19,587 votes, AFGE took 8,369 and NTEU scored 8,095 — almost a dead heat. The “no union” option was chosen by 3,111 voters. About 43,000 employees were eligible to vote.
The union representatives, along with those from the Transportation Security Administration, decided to meet Thursday morning to plan a runoff election.
“We’re going into this runoff confident of victory,” said NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley.
Her counterpart, AFGE President John Gage, said the same thing: “While AFGE is disappointed that we can’t begin negotiating a collective bargaining agreement right away, we are confident that TSOs will once and for all vote for AFGE in a runoff election.”
Although both unions had predicted victory, the virtual tie must be a special disappointment to AFGE, which says it has 13,000 dues-paying TSO members.
“That’s something we’re scratching our heads on now,” Gage said. “We thought we had accounted for 13,000 votes in AFGE’s favor. We were shocked that our vote total was as low as it was — still number one.”
Some TSOs might have mistakenly thought they didn’t have to vote because they belong to the union, according to Gage. When he asked some workers whether they had voted, he said they replied: “ ‘Well, we’re already members.’”
Given the spirited campaign waged by the unions, the “no union” vote seemed strong, particularly because it apparently had no widespread organized support. “No union” will not be an option in the runoff.
“I am not pro-union of any sort,” said TSO Mark Levengard, who attended an AFGE campaign rally at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
Even with the “no union” turnout, 84 percent of the workers voted for a union. “I think that’s a huge statement of support,” Kelley said.
The two largest federal unions campaigned vigorously during the six weeks of voting that ended Tuesday, but they have been recruiting members and seeking the officers support for years. AFGE chartered its first local in 2003.
Activity started heating up in November, when the authority ruled that the officers, who screen people and luggage at the nation’s airports, had the right to vote on union representation. It was a right that had been denied them to that point.
In making that ruling, the FLRA rejected claims from Republicans in Congress and the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which argued that allowing unionization would, in the words of the foundation, “post an unacceptable threat to national security.”
The FLRA ruling did not grant the screeners the right to bargain as a group. That was done in February, when Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole granted limited collective bargaining rights.
“No matter which union ultimately prevails, we hope and expect that they will join us to further improve TSA’s performance of its critical security mission and support our frontline officers as they carry out this mission,” Pistole said in a statement after the results were announced.
As he had previously, Pistole defended his decision to allow collective bargaining, despite vigorous objections from conservatives. “The safety of the traveling public remains our top priority and I have made clear we will not negotiate on security,” he said. “However, I continue to believe that employee engagement and morale cannot be separated from achieving superior security.”
His agency is notorious for low morale.
Pistole’s decision excluded bargaining on numerous items, making the scope of labor negotiations for screeners more limited than that available to other federal workers. Excluded are any issue TSA deems security related, including security procedures and the deployment of security personnel and equipment. Compensation, testing, job qualifications and discipline standards also are excluded.
Items that can be negotiated under Pistole’s decision include seniority, shift bids, transfers and awards.
The limited scope of bargaining and the six-week election period could have been factors in holding down turnout. Kelley said some employees lost election materials and the six weeks meant there was no sense of urgency among the electorate.
“We think four weeks would be just fine,” she said.
FLRA will need time to gear up for another election, so the outcome of the contest is probably more than two months away.
Said Gage: “This is a campaign that seems to have no end.”