Steve Strunsky/The Star-Ledger By Steve Strunsky/The Star-Ledger
NEWARK — The union representing nearly 44,000 airport screeners, including 1,200 at Newark Liberty International Airport, reached a contract agreement today with the Transportation Security Administration — the first since the federal agency was created a decade ago in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
The deal includes a new process for resolving disciplinary matters and a better system for increasing pay based on performance, said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA workers. Union members still must vote to ratify the deal.
"We have often looked back and wondered why it was taking so long," Gage said in a statement. "Today, we begin to look forward."
When the TSA was created by an act of Congress in 2002, it was left up to the agency administrator whether to allow collective bargaining. TSA Administrator John Pistole last year granted screeners limited union rights.
The Bush administration originally opposed union efforts, arguing that labor disputes could inhibit the agency’s ability to function properly, thereby compromising security. But the Obama administration, organized labor and others argued enhanced employee participation in workplace conditions would boost morale, improve job performance and, ultimately, airport security.
Before screeners were allowed to unionize, Newark Liberty had been plagued a series of high-profile security breaches that a 2011 internal assessment drafted by local TSA managers blamed at least in part on low morale.
"The contract is going to make the security better because it’s going to boost the morale of the employees," Stacy Bodtmann, a Newark screener and member of the negotiating team, said in an interview today after returning from talks in Washington, D.C.
Although TSA employees are among the lowest paid federal workers — starting pay for Newark screeners is about $32,000 a year, including a 28-percent regional cost-of-living adjustment — salaries and issues directly involving security were excluded from negotiations. Screeners, who X-ray bags and guide passengers through security, are also banned from going on strike or conducting work slowdowns.
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Bodtmann said the contract contains real gains for employees. For one thing, she said, technical proficiency testing will still be mandatory as a job qualification, but it will no longer be part of the performance review process in determining pay.
"You could be an outstanding worker and a poor test taker and you could get a poor performance evaluation," she said.
One of the biggest changes under the new deal is that disputes over serious disciplinary matters will be decided by independent third-party arbitrators at the federal Merit Systems Protection Board rather than TSA managers.
In a statement, Pistole said the agreement represented "a milestone" in TSA labor relations.
The contract includes another, more visible provision: Screeners, as part of their uniforms, will be allowed to wear dark blue jackets in colder conditions and shorts during warmer weather.
In addition to the screeners at Newark, the union also represents about 2,000 screeners at John F. Kennedy International Airport and 950 at LaGuardia Airport.
Some of the screeners' non-union colleagues welcomed the new contract as means of improving the workplace.
"I would like to say it is a monumental occasion for TSA and its uniformed employees," said Philip Tsambazis, a Newark screening supervisor who is president of Federal Managers Association Local 400, a professional organization that promotes workplace best practices. "We at TSA are falling into line with the other federal agencies and are finally getting recognition with the help from AFGE. We look forward to everything AFGE has to offer TSA. FMA chapter 400 anticipates opening dialog with AFGE in the near future."