TSA nominee is urged to reject airport screeners' push for collective bargaining

Friday, June 11, 2010; B03

In the past six months, a man with a bomb in his underpants was accused of trying to blow up a plane bound for Detroit, a suspect was pulled off a plane after apparently trying to set off a car bomb in Times Square, and two men apparently on their way to train with an al-Qaeda-allied group in Somalia were arrested at a New York airport.

Yet with all the security-related issues on the Transportation Security Administration's agenda, the main thing on the minds of few senators at a confirmation hearing for the agency's proposed administrator is the perceived danger that could befall the United States if airport screeners are allowed to bargain collectively.

During a confirmation hearing Thursday, two Republican senators pressed John S. Pistole, President Obama's latest nominee to run the TSA, to reject the efforts at collective bargaining.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.), the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, urged Pistole, deputy director of the FBI, to resist pressure from federal employee unions to secure bargaining rights for nearly 50,000 transportation security officers.

"I am adamantly against that," she said.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said that collective bargaining would "significantly undermine TSA's ability to respond to threats and protect the nation." Allowing airport screeners to bargain would have a "direct negative impact" on airport security, he said, because it would hamper the agency's "ability to deploy people at any time."

DeMint said the FBI does not have collective bargaining. He did not mention that employees who do have collective bargaining include customs inspectors, border patrol agents, the Capitol Police, uniformed Secret Service officers and the Park Police in the federal service, according to the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. Many state and local police officers and firefighters also have such rights.

Pistole was noncommittal about the issue. He said that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had asked him to review the question if he is confirmed.

DeMint did score a point when Pistole said that collective bargaining at the FBI would not improve national security. "From the FBI's perspective, we have to have the ability to surge resources at any time," he said.

No one demonstrated that collective bargaining would hamper the TSA's ability to deploy screeners.

"They created a big bad wolf they are afraid of," Jon Adler, president of the law enforcement officers association, said of the collective-bargaining opponents. "There is no big bad wolf."

For John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, "facts do matter. It is untrue that any collective bargaining agreement would impede national security," he said in a statement. "It is untrue that TSA personnel would have to first check with their union reps before acting in an emergency situation."

There was also discussion of life-and-death issues at the hearing.

Pistole said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in the bombing attempt on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, was not detected in part because he had not touched the explosives, which had no metallic parts.

Pistole was also asked about poor treatment by screeners.

"I constantly hear complaints about mistreatment by TSA officers," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). He said a constituent complained of "surly and inappropriate behavior" by airport screeners.

Pistole said he would work to improve customer service through training and by developing ways to measure it. Hutchison said she found screeners to be "very, very nice and polite and understanding."

The agency has been without an administrator since Obama took office 18 months ago. His first two nominees withdrew.

"It's embarrassing," Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W. Va.) said of the vacancy.

The agency needs an administrator "to address the multiple workplace issues that have served as a drag on employee morale and led to elevated attrition rates, among other serious problems," Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a statement.

Despite the questions about collective bargaining, there was no indication that Pistole would have difficulty being confirmed. He would be "a valuable asset to our administration's efforts to further strengthen transportation security and keep the traveling public safe," a White House statement sad.

"I think the president has made the right decision this time," Hutchison said.

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