If workers did ever earn collective bargaining, Retired Maj. Gen. Robert Harding told senators at the first of his two confirmation hearings, the TSA "would never bargain away security."
TSA workers -- some of the nation's most high-profile government workers -- can join unions, but they are legally blocked from negotiating with the government under collective bargaining rules unless the TSA administrator agrees to grant such rights.
Harding said he would study the issue further if confirmed and would be "very concerned about the implementation of such a change, if it was to be accepted."
"All parties agree on the necessity for the administrator to have the ability to move screeners at a moment’s notice in response or prior to a terrorist incident," Harding said. "Everyone seems to agree that we need to strengthen security."
The Bush administration refused to extend collective bargaining to TSA screeners when the agency was established in 2002, and the ranking Republican on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee raised the issue with Harding.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Tex.) said that extending union rights to airport screeners might hamper the agency's ability to quickly deploy workers to other parts of an airport or to extend work hours in the event of a security crisis.
"I just think that there’s some jobs that aren’t 9 to 5 and when they apply, people should know that they’re not," Hutchinson said. "Security and law enforcement, military as well, are those kinds of jobs."
Republican concerns about the granting of collective bargaining rights stalled and eventually helped derail the nomination of Erroll Southers, the Obama administration's first pick for the TSA post. Southers also refused to provide direct answers to questions from Republican lawmakers about his stance on the issue.
Harding faces the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday. Republican aides said members may raise concerns with the contracting company he established earlier this decade. The firm provided interrogation-related work at a Baghdad prison, but did not have any direct involvement with abuses committed at the prison, congressional aides said.