TSA Airport Screeners Vote to Join Union - Updated

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.

While the AFGE union won't be allowed to collectively bargain over the airport security screeners' pay, its president John Gage wants an overhaul of the system used to determine pay raises. During a conference call with reporters Thursday afternoon, Mr. Gage said his first order of business will be to "kill" TSA's Performance and Accountability Standards System, alleging it is discriminatory to older workers, minorities and women.

The union has raised concerns in the past about the system, known as PASS, calling it flawed, subjective and unfair. In 2008, AFGE complained security officers couldn't appeal an unfair PASS evaluation to an objective third party and said management arbitrarily assigned extra duties that could lead to higher pay.

The union also accused the TSA of understaffing in ways that prevented workers from completing training requirements. It has also criticized the agency for administering certain tests the union says don't determine job proficiency.

AFGE officials have since said the agency has taken a "saner approach" toward compensation, but Mr. Gage said more needs to be done.

Mr. Gage said he has already requested a meeting with TSA officials to start discussing contract negotiations and aims within 45 days to submit a contract proposal to management that would lead to a final contract within six months.

The vote comes after TSA Administrator John Pistole announced in February that the Obama administration had cleared the way for the screeners to unionize. Once election results are certified, "we hope and expect that the elected union will join us to continue to further strengthen performance and support TSA employees as they carry out our vital security mission," Mr. Pistole said in a statement Thursday.

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.

In his statement, Mr. Pistole reiterated that security-related issues won't be open to discussion. "As always, the safety of the flying public is our top priority, and TSA simply will not negotiate on security-related matters," he said.

Aside from negotiating a contract, Mr. Gage will be focused on aggressively recruiting airport-security screeners as unions members, which could prove challenging. While the union will represent all 44,000 TSA airport screeners, the workers won't be required to sign up as union members, who also pay dues. Only 17,350 people voted in the runoff election between the AFGE and the union that competed against it for representation.

Mr. Gage's goal is to sign on at least 25,000 screeners as members this year.

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%.

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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