TSA airport screeners at Newark airport, elsewhere vote to form collective bargaining unit

NEWARK — The 1,200 airport screeners in Newark Liberty International Airport and their 42,000 brethren around the country have voted to form a collective bargaining unit, federal officials said today.

After nearly nine years of screeners’ pushing for bargaining rights, the vote was not a surprise: 16,464 in favor of collective bargaining, with 3,111 opposed.

But during the same six-week electronic ballot process, rank-and-file employees of the Transportation Security Administration were split almost evenly between the two unions competing to represent them, failing to hand either one a majority of the votes cast. A runoff election will be held in the coming months to choose the union.

Even so, the election’s incomplete outcome was cheered by union supporters. And for the screeners at Newark Liberty, the arrival of collective bargaining was the second workplace triumph in two days. On Tuesday, Newark’s top TSA official, Federal Security Director Barbara Bonn Powell, announced she was leaving the post amid a string of embarrassing security lapses and low morale among management and entry level employees who openly criticized her leadership.

"Even though I didn’t want to have a runoff, at least we know we’ll have a union," said Stacy Bodtmann, a screener at Newark who is secretary-teasurer of Local 2222 of the American Federation of Government Employees, one of the two unions seeking to represent the screeners. "With Barbara gone, nothing could ruin it."

For years, Local 2222 has represented thousands of dues-paying screeners at Newark, John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports in grievances, disciplinary procedures and other individual matters.

But the runnoff will be held to select either AFGE or the National Treasury Employees Union to represent all 43,000 screeners nationwide as a single unit in contract negotiations over scheduling, dress code, breaks and other issues unrelated to pay, security techniques and standards and hiring qualifications.

Screeners will not be forced to join the winning union, or pay dues. But the losing union will no longer represent TSA screeners in any capacity. Also, any contract provisions agreed upon through collective bargaining will apply to all TSA screeners.

Frank Hurd, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations, said that by improving morale and including workers in the formulation of workplace rules, collective bargaining could improve security.

"As long as the relationship between the union and the agency is positive, then you would expect that the effect of collective bargaining on performance would be positive," Hurd said.

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