WASHINGTON — As President Obama orders an overhaul of the nation's air security system, the agency that is charged with overseeing passenger safety lacks a permanent leader because of a Senate dispute over labor relations.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is insisting that the Senate debate the confirmation of Erroll Southers, Obama's nominee to head the nation's Transportation Security Administration, because Southers has so far refused to say whether he will authorize collective bargaining rights for the nation's 49,000 airport screeners.
DeMint says he's raising a legitimate security concern: He contends a union would jeopardize the government's ability to make the swift personnel and equipment moves needed to maintain security.
"We cannot give union bosses veto power over national security at our airports," DeMint said in a statement Tuesday.
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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Tuesday accused Republicans of pursuing a political strategy that is "dangerous … with serious potential consequences."
The dispute dates back to the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), during the George W. Bush administration.
Bush opposed giving TSA employees the same union representation as other federal workers. The 2001 bill that created the TSA included a provision giving the agency's administrator authority to grant collective bargaining rights.
None of Bush's appointees exercised the option; now the question is whether the first nominee of a Democratic president to hold the office will.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security committee, Southers refused to be pinned down. "My position right now is one of wanting to review it," said Southers, the assistant chief for homeland security for the Los Angeles airport system.
DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said his boss is dubious about Southers' sincerity, largely because Obama already is on record as favoring expanding union rights for TSA workers.
"If I am elected president, I will work to ensure that TSOs (transportation security officers) have collective bargaining rights," then-candidate Obama wrote in an Oct. 20, 2008, letter to John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for the union, argued that union protection can enhance security by providing TSA workers with whistle-blower protection — encouraging them to report problems in the system.
The ability to negotiate better work conditions would also keep experienced employees on the job, she said. According to Ryan, the TSA had a 19% turnover rate last year compared with the governmentwide 3%. Other federal law enforcement officials, such as the Capitol Hill Police and the Border Patrol, have collective bargaining rights.
Denton said Democrats are trying to blame his boss for a delay that was of their own making. "They ignored this agency for almost a year," he said. Obama nominated Southers in September; the Senate Homeland Security committee cleared his nomination for a vote in the full Senate on Nov. 19.