Thompson Looking for Movement on TSA Collective Bargaining

Thompson Looking for Movement on TSA Collective Bargaining
By Rob Margetta, CQ Staff

With the sunset of his chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee approaching, Rep. Bennie Thompson made an appeal Tuesday to the head of the Transportation Security Administration to allow security workers at the agency collective bargaining rights.

After its establishment in 2001 (PL 107-71), TSA opted to prohibit the workers used for airport screening and other security activities from collective bargaining, with officials from the George W. Bush administration saying that the practice would harm the agency’s ability to quickly adapt to emerging threats. Democratic lawmakers and the Obama administration have said that logic no longer applies, and many in the security world, including the two unions vying to represent TSA, expected the agency to change its policies after the Senate confirmed John S. Pistole as its leader in June.

But as Thompson noted in a letter, Pistole is still reviewing the policy, as he promised lawmakers he would do prior to his confirmation. The Mississippi Democrat said the ban on collective bargaining could be the source of TSA’s personnel woes over the years.

Transportation security officers [TSOs] “continue to suffer from attrition and workplace injury rates that exceed the norm for employees in the federal sector,” he said.

While TSA is ranked 220th on the Partnership for Public Service’s 2010 survey of the best places to work in government — just fourth from the bottom, based on low marks in categories including fairness and pay — Customs and Border Protection, another Department of Homeland Security agency where workers have collective bargaining ability, had a rank of 146.

“Also obvious is that the existence of collective bargaining rights among other employees with ‘critical national security responsibilities’ has not diminished performance,” he said. “I think we would be hard-pressed to find fault with the performance of individuals employed by Customs and Border Protection.”

Furthermore, he said, the ability to unionize at CBP has not harmed the agency’s ability to meet critical national security needs, he said. “Thus, it cannot be assumed that collective bargaining would have an adverse impact on TSOs.”

TSA workers can actually unionize already — both the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union say thousands of TSOs have joined their ranks. But while the organizations can represent workers in court and before federal review boards, they cannot engage in collective bargaining. Both of the unions asked the Federal Labor Relations Authority to hold a vote on sole representation for TSA, which the board granted in November, although how such an election would work before a decision on the collective bargaining issue is settled is still an open question.

Thompson noted the labor authority’s decision in his letter, and said the current system puts TSA offers at a disadvantage when compared to workers in the relatively small amount of airports that allow private security guards to conduct screening after receiving the same training as their federal counterparts.

“Under this directive, security screeners who are employed by private sector employers contracting with TSA to provide security screening services may be able to engage in collective bargaining activity — an opportunity denied their colleagues who may be employed by the federal government,” he wrote.

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