11 January 2010 BLOOMINGTON - Transportation security officers at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport have formed a local of the American Federation of Government Employees while they await federal action enabling them to unionize.
Their organizing efforts got a boost from a solidarity event Monday with a national AFGE official, Congressman Keith Ellison and leaders of unions representing other airport and airline workers.
“The union is coming!” AFGE Chief of Staff Brian DeWyngaert told security workers and supporters assembled on the mezzanine above the airport’s ticketing level. His comments were met with cheers and workers waving signs that read, “Give us freedom to bargain for the American dream.”
When the Transportation Security Administration was created following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush banned union representation for the 38,000 TSA employees. But that hasn’t stopped airport screeners from seeking a voice on the job.
In the years since, 12,000 have become dues-paying members of AFGE, the largest federal employee union. Thousands of others have joined the National Treasury Employees Union, according to that organization.
In Minnesota, screeners have formed Local 899 of AFGE and elected Dean Johnson as president.
Their hope for a union contract could become a reality if the U.S. Senate appoints Erroll Southers, President Obama’s choice to head the TSA. Although the former FBI agent, now assistant homeland security chief for the Los Angeles airports, has not stated an official position on unionization, advocates believe he will overturn the Bush ban.
That possibility has prompted Republicans, led by South Carolina’s James DeMint, to stonewall the Southers nomination.
Questions of patriotism
DeMint says that allowing TSA workers to unionize “would weaken our security.”
At Monday’s solidarity event, Ellison, a Democrat representing Minnesota’s Fifth District, praised the efforts of TSA workers and condemned DeMint’s statements.
“I fly through this airport twice a week,” Ellison said. “TSO agents are doing a good job every single day. Public safety depends upon workers who are feeling healthy, satisfied, protected, safe . . . Collective bargaining rights don’t hurt our safety, they help our safety because they make for a stronger workforce.”
Ellison is a co-sponsor of H.R. 1881, federal legislation that would establish collective bargaining rights for TSA employees.
Congressman Keith Ellison addressed TSA workers at a solidarity event Monday at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Among those listening was Dean Johnson (second from right), president of the new AFGE Local 899.
Morale among transportation security officers is low due to the lack of representation, DeWyngaert said. The latest “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” survey found that TSA ranked 213 out of 216 agencies overall on a wide variety of job quality measures – and dead last in pay and benefits.
TSA employees are incensed by suggestions that they are somehow unpatriotic – or endangering national security – by seeking a voice on the job, DeWyngaert said.
“Let’s remember 9/11,” he said. “The police and firefighters had collective bargaining rights as they ran into the building to save their fellow Americans.”
It was AFGE-represented police officers who apprehended the shooter in the Nov. 5 killings at Fort Hood, Texas, he said.
“Collective bargaining rights helped them focus on doing their job,” DeWyngaert said. Politicians “are calling into question the patriotism of the very workers who are giving their lives to defend America. It’s wrong. It’s petty . . . Shame on them.”
If transportation security officers win the right to unionize – either through action by the TSA administrator or through federal legislation – a union election could happen within months, following rules set by the Federal Labor Relations Authority, the agency that oversees collective bargaining among federal employees.
Members of several other unions at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are supporting the AFGE organizing effort. They include the Machinists (airline ground workers), UNITE HERE (airport food service) and SEIU (airport janitors).
“We stand behind the TSA workers 100 percent,” said Kip Hedges, representing Machinists Local 1833.
Minnesota AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Steve Hunter said, “The American labor movement calls upon the United States Senate to confirm the appointment of Erroll Southers,” adding, “The next step we need to take toward airline safety is to allow these workers to organize.”