TSA Airport Screeners Vote to Join Union

WASHINGTON—The American Federation of Government Employees said Thursday it has won the right to represent more than 40,000 airport-security screeners employed by the federal government, months after the Obama administration cleared the way for the workers to organize.

The screeners, who work for the Transportation Security Administration, chose the AFGE in a runoff vote against the National Treasury Employees Union by a margin of 8,903 to 8,447 votes. The vote began May 23 and ended Tuesday. In a previous vote tallied in April, neither of the two unions received the majority needed to win.

The TSA workers will only be able to bargain over a limited number of workplace issues—not pay- or security-related matters such as the deployment of personnel or equipment. They'll also be banned from striking or engaging in work slowdowns. Allowable bargaining issues include performance evaluations or the bidding process for work shifts.

The Obama administration's decision to grant the unionization rights drew fire from Republican lawmakers and praise from Democrats. Federal unions also applauded the move after years of trying to win bargaining rights for airport screeners hired in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Republican lawmakers have raised concerns that passenger safety would be compromised if union rules prevented the TSA from quickly reassigning staff to meet a security threat. Obama administration officials have said security won't be affected.

The representation vote comes at a time when union membership nationwide has declined to less than 12% of all workers.

In 2010, total membership fell to 11.9% from 12.3% a year earlier, and membership dropped sharply from 20.1% in 1983, the first year for which comparable data are available. The rate of unionization in the public sector, 36.2%, is far higher than that of the private sector's 6.9%. But the public sector rate has still dropped from its 2009 level of 37.4%.

The AFGE will represent all TSA airport screeners, but workers won't be required to sign up as union members.

"We are obviously thrilled with the election results, but more importantly are delighted that the transportation security officers now will have the full union representation they rightly deserve," AFGE President John Gage said in a statement.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation, said Thursday's results followed "a painfully long process and more than a decade without a voice on the job" for the screeners.

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