TSA nominee Pistole pressed on labor issue by Republican senators

During a generally warm welcome at his confirmation hearing Thursday, two Republican senators pressed John S. Pistole, President Obama’s latest nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration, to reject collective bargaining rights for airport screeners.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (Texas), the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, urged Pistole, currently 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 collective bargaining would have a “direct negative impact” on airport security because it would hamper the agency’s “ability to deploy people at any time.”

Pistole did not offer any opinion about bargaining rights at the agency. He said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had asked him to review the bargaining issue if he is confirmed. In his review, he promised to “engage all stakeholders.”

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, released a statement that said, “no senator should let an anti-labor bias interfere with the urgent need for a top Homeland Security official to be put in place.

“Facts do matter. It is untrue that any collective bargaining agreement would impede national security. It is untrue that TSA personnel would have to first check with their union reps before acting in an emergency situation. And it is untrue that TSA officials would not be able to deploy employees as needed in an emergency.”

On another issue, Pistole said, “We were very, very fortunate” that the attempted in-flight bombing on Christmas day of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit failed. The bomb, hidden in a passenger’s underpants, had almost double the explosive power of a shoe bomb that also failed to explode during a flight in 2001.

“The damage would have been much more significant,” Pistole said, “probably causing catastrophic damage to the aircraft.”

In addition to questions about collective bargaining and airport security, Pistole also was asked about the sometimes poor level of customer service transportation security officers provide the flying public.

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

Pistole said he would work to improve customer service by developing ways to measure it and through training programs.

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 (D-W. Va.) said of the long vacancy in the administrator’s office.

Despite the pressing questions about collective bargaining, there was no indication that Pistole would have any difficulty winning confirmation.

“I think the president has made the right decision this time,” Hutchinson said.

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