Senator blocks TSA confirmation in fight over unionizing airport luggage screeners

From CNN's Jeanne Meserve and Mike Ahlers

Washington (CNN)–The nation's 50,000 airport baggage screeners - upgraded to "federal transportation officers" under the Bush administration - could get another title under the Obama administration: Union members.

But not without a fight.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, is blocking the confirmation of Erroll Southers to head the Transportation Security Administration, saying Southers would permit screeners to seek full union representation, a move DeMint says would weaken the effectiveness of the agency.

Unionizing baggage screeners would make the agency "much less flexible" in making quick changes, such as those made overnight in August of 2006 when the British uncovered a plot to destroy planes using liquid bombs, DeMint said.

Union leaders counter that unionization could improve national security by improving screener morale and working conditions.

DeMint's decision to block Southers' nomination is the most visible sign of a debate that has simmered since the creation of the Transportation Security Administration. When the agency was formed after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress specifically prevented its workers from seeking full union representation, saying the agency needed to be nimble to respond to threats.

Later, the government opted to allow screeners to join unions, but without "collective bargaining," limiting its ability to influence changes.

In 2008, just two weeks before the presidential election, candidate Barack Obama gave his support to union rights for screeners.

His promise was unequivocal. "If I am elected president, I will work to ensure that TSOs (transportation security officers) have collective bargaining rights and a voice at work to address issues that arise locally and nationally," Obama wrote in a letter to John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees(AFGE).

So when Obama nominated Los Angeles International Airport police department official Southers to head the Transportation Security Administration this summer, leaders of two government unions praised the announcement, even though Southers was quiet on the issue of unionization.

"The question of bargaining rights at TSA is not a matter of 'if' but when," Gage wrote in a September letter applauding the choice.

Giving full union rights to baggage screeners is "a terrible idea," James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation said Wednesday.

"Unionism and collective bargaining bring with it all sorts of inefficiencies. If you want to make any changes to your business procedures you have to spend months negotiating them first. The TSA doesn't have the luxury of months before they change their security screenings," Sherk said.

Collective bargaining "puts sand in the gears" of government, he said.

Gage calls claims that unionization will hurt national security "disingenuous and hypocritical."

"No one talks about our two officers - two union members - who took down the shooter at Fort Hood. There was nothing in their union membership that stopped them from doing their duties," Gage said. "People who insinuate that being a union member has a nation security implication are just totally wrong."

Two screeners contacted by CNN - both AFGE members - also said collective bargaining would not impact security.

"I took an oath to uphold my position," said Cris Soulia, president of AFGE Local 1234 and a screener in San Diego. "The job always comes first."

Soulia said screeners would follow emergency contingencies. "We can sit back after the fact and say, 'Hey, did you do it right?' But our mission is to keep the public safe. I'm there to keep passengers safe."

A.J. Castilla, an AFGE union representative in Boston, said he hopes Obama appoints Southers during the congressional recess.

"We're tired of sitting at the back of the bus, and I think next year we won't have to," he said.

DeMint said he is holding up Southers' nomination because "we need to make the point to the American people that this administration is more about politics than security."

"It's all about politics - pay-back to the unions," he said.

DeMint said Southers has been evasive about whether he supports unionization of baggage screeners. In a letter to DeMint, Southers said he would not support "any system ... that would potentially compromise the safety and security of the flying public."

But DeMint said it's clear what path Southers will take. "I think he is following through on the president's promise to unionize," he said.

People on both side of the Transportation Security Administration unionization debate say that, ultimately, the Senate is likely to confirm
Southers, and that Southers is likely to support full unionization for the

"The political forces are aligning for this to happen," said Sherk of the Heritage Foundation. "It's not preordained, but it looks like there's a good chance."

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