TSA nominee won't commit to collective bargaining rights

During his first confirmation hearing in Washington on Tuesday, President Obama's nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration pledged to boost training for employees but would not commit to extending collective bargaining rights to agency screeners.

"From my military service, I know all too well how important a well-trained workforce is," said Maj. Gen. Robert Harding before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. "You have my commitment to enhance training opportunities and invest in developing TSA's employees."

After Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., asked how Harding would move TSA toward an airport security model more similar to the intensive and multilayered security practiced by Israeli authorities, Harding said the answer was "training, training, more training in droves," and that he wanted TSA's workforce to adopt a drilling model like the one used in Israel.

Harding also said raising morale among the workforce would be a high priority if he is confirmed. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said he was concerned by discussions he'd had with TSA screeners at Washington-area airports that reflected low morale and high turnover. Warner speculated that some of that turnover might be local and due to the availability of federal security jobs in other agencies with better reputations in the greater Washington area.

"I will be looking for those performance metrics and milestones within the TSA," Warner noted, emphasizing the need for the agency to demonstrate more progress in challenging areas.

While Harding was enthusiastic about improving training and professionalism for TSA workers, he would not commit to a position on collective bargaining rights for TSA screeners, an issue Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, the committee's ranking member, pressed him on. When the agency was established in 2002, Congress gave the TSA administrator the authority to decide whether to give the workforce those rights. During the George W. Bush administration, TSA decided not to permit the workforce to bargain collectively, although the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union began organizing TSA locals.

"Previous TSA administrators have said that they would be very, very concerned about collective bargaining not allowing the flexibility that you need to deploy forces you need to a certain area of an airport, to a certain airport, to change working hours if a crisis situation is at hand," Hutchison told Harding. "I hope you will also be looking at the flexibility of the workforce and the need for that flexibility as one of your priorities."

Harding said that while he had begun discussions with TSA stakeholders on the question of collective bargaining, he believed he still had to talk to members of the agency's workforce and officials across the Homeland Security Department before advising DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano on screeners' rights.

"All parties agree on the need for flexibility and agility, all parties agree on the need for the administrator to have the ability to move screeners on a moment's notice," he said of his discussions so far. "We would never bargain away security."

Harding's nomination process has not been without controversy. Recently, he has come under fire for interrogation-related work that a contracting company he founded performed in Iraq at Abu Ghraib. The company reimbursed the government $2 million after overbilling for its services.

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