Steve Strunsky/The Star-Ledger By Steve Strunsky/The Star-Ledger
A U.S. Transportation Security Administration behavioral detection officer speaks with a traveler as he works the line of airline travelers making their way through Newark Airport Terminal C in this 2008 file photo.
NEWARK — The note is posted at the parking lot Transportation Security Administration officers use at Newark Airport: "TSA Employees: Thank you for your diligence and hard work! We appreciate all that you do."
But actions speak louder than words. The gaping potholes that have punished workers’ automobiles and the unplowed snow that stranded employees overnight this past winter have sent a very different message to those who park in the privately operated lot and take buses to the terminals.
"They can thank us all they want for our diligence, but why don’t they fix the potholes?" questioned Stacy Bottmann, 41, of Parlin, a TSA officer at Newark Liberty International Airport. She said TSA management is complicit in the neglect.
"If you chose this company, then you should be making sure that they’re doing their job," Bottmann said. "And officers have complained to management about this lot."
She and others say the parking situation is symptomatic of the disrespect TSA managers have for workers. But attitudes may be changing soon.
After seven years without collective bargaining under the Bush administration and another two years of debate and deliberations under President Obama, TSA Administrator John Pistole last month permitted such bargaining for the federal agency’s employees on a limited range of nonsecurity and nonpay issues. Job qualifications, proficiency testing and disciplinary policies are also off the table, and strikes and slowdowns are strictly forbidden.
But TSA employees say being granted collective bargaining rights is no small measure of respect for a notoriously low-paid workforce hounded by the media for every mishap and defied by cell-phone videographers warning "Don’t touch my junk." The union would be able to negotiate policies on shifts, break time, dress codes and other work rules — issues that don’t rank with the ability to bargain for pay but nevertheless are important first steps to proponents.
"It’s almost 10 years in the making, and now collective bargaining — leave policies, parking privileges, uniforms," said Mecca Scott, a former TSA officer who is now a national organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, one of two unions vying to represent the workers. "The public doesn’t really even realize or know how (transportation-security officers) are treated by management on a regular basis. And then in the media, they’re really getting beat up on a regular basis because of a few bad apples. … They’re going to have a voice, a true voice."
Scott called it "a great day" March 9, when 44,000 rank-and-file employees across the country began casting ballots in the TSA’s first union election since the agency was hastily conceived after the 9/11 attacks, mainly to screen airline passengers and baggage.
In electronic polling that ends April 19, the agency’s transportation-security officers, behavior-detection officers and other nonmanagement employees will decide whether they want to form a single, nationwide collective bargaining unit and which union will represent them in contract negotiations.
The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which oversees union elections for government employees, will tally the votes April 20 and announce the results that day, said Sarah Spooner, a staff attorney with the labor authority. The American Federation of Government Employees or the National Treasury Employees Union needs a majority of votes to be certified. Failing that, a bargaining unit will not be established.
Collective bargaining opponents say work-rule changes achieved through negotiations could hinder the TSA’s ability to protect the flying public. Proponents say a contract will improve morale and reduce turnover. They also say a contract will encourage employees to speak up — and that will make for safer skies.
"It will be a work environment in which voices of employees are heard, and they have a lot of good ideas," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "It’ll be a win-win for the traveling public."
Many TSA employees are already union members, although they don’t have bargaining rights. Scott said the American Federation of Government Employees has more than 500 dues-paying members at Newark Airport alone. Members ante up $13.50 every two-week pay period for information, guidance or legal representation from the union in disputes over TSA work rules.
This month, about a dozen TSA officers active in the federation gathered at a family restaurant near the airport to celebrate the start of the balloting. They expressed a commitment to their jobs and paid tribute to Garth Conover, a TSA officer and early union activist at Newark Airport who died in 2009.
They also complained about favoritism; about a prohibition on wearing anything — including their dark blue TSA jackets — over their sky blue blouses inside the terminal; about having comp time revoked; about the parking situation.
Their voices may be getting louder already. A TSA spokeswoman, Ann Davis, said Newark Airport management does not control the contracting process for employee parking, for which workers pay $45 a month, on top of the $90 monthly payment by the TSA. But, she said, Newark TSA chief Barbara Bonn Powell is well aware of the concerns.
"The federal security director has ensured every issue related to inadequate snow removal and lot maintenance has been documented and provided to TSA’s contracting officer," Davis said. "The director has requested the contracting officer take this evidence of performance deficiencies into consideration when the contract comes up for renewal."
The lot’s operator, Secure Parking Systems of Newark, did not return calls seeking comment.
The TSA officers also noted rules vary not only from airport to airport, but also in some cases from terminal to terminal — inconsistencies they hope a single, nationwide contract would fix.
Ralph Lukas, 49, of Scotch Plains, a TSA officer since 2002, wondered about the disparity among Department of Homeland Security employees, noting that while TSA workers don’t have collective bargaining, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents do.
"We’re just looking for the same rights as the other agencies," Lukas said.
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