Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Maybe the third time will be the charm.
President Obama's first two choices to lead the Transportation Security Administration withdrew from consideration, so now the task of running the Senate's nomination gantlet will fall to John S. Pistole, a deputy FBI director.
At his nomination hearing on Thursday, Pistole will face a variety of issues regarding airport security, intelligence coordination and the threat of terrorism.
But one issue that stands out for many of the transportation security officers who are on the front lines of protecting air travelers was settled long ago for colleagues in other government agencies: collective-bargaining rights.
Although that issue certainly wasn't the only one facing the previous picks, senators who oppose bargaining rights made it a thorny topic for them. In January, a couple of months before Erroll Southers withdrew, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) wrote an article in the Greenville News lambasting bargaining rights for the TSOs.
"When the plot by terrorists from the UK was uncovered in 2006, new rules on carrying liquids onboard went into effect within 12 hours," he wrote. "If TSA had been unionized then, officials would have had to first ask permission of union bosses. And if the unions decided the changes were too burdensome on their employees, weeks or months of negotiations could have ensued, before any changes were made. Even in their recent response to the attempt by [Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly attempted to blow up a plane on Christmas Day], TSA officials reassigned staff and changed screening procedures within hours, a quick move that would be nearly impossible under collective bargaining with union bosses."
During Robert A. Harding's nomination hearing in March, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.), the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, echoed DeMint's comments, saying she was "especially troubled that this administration continues to focus on the collective-bargaining issue even though former TSA administrators have argued that allowing screeners to collectively bargain could have dire consequences on the agency's fundamental security mission, and would degrade its flexible workforce, which can react quickly to emerging threats."
There is no reason to think that collective bargaining would have "dire consequences." Many state, local and federal first responders are unionized, as were the heroes in uniform who rushed into the burning World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association rejected the anti-collective-bargaining views of DeMint and Hutchison when Southers was under consideration. "The collective-bargaining process should not be touted as a Darth Vader obstacle to TSA deploying TSOs in a national emergency," the association president, Jon Adler, said at the time.
The seating of a full-time administrator also would affect employees in ways other than collective-bargaining rights, said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Once a boss in confirmed, she said, the agency "can put in place policies and procedures that will make TSA the world-class place it was designed to be."
Union leaders are confident that the collective-bargaining issue will not prevent Pistole's confirmation. "Congress won't let one or two senators hold everything up over what is a straw argument," said Sharon Pinnock, membership and organizing director of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Pistole met with DeMint last month and collective bargaining was discussed. He and Hutchison are likely to bring it up again Thursday.
But Pistole is unlikely to give them much of an answer. Southers and Harding would not disclose where they stood on the issue, even though Obama long ago stated his approval of collective bargaining for TSOs.
Harding, for example, told Hutchison that everyone agrees on the need for flexibility and greater security. "If confirmed, I would love to have the opportunity to broaden the experience that I have already had in looking into this by talking to a very broad cross-section of the transportation security officers, of other members of TSA, as well as members in [the Department of Homeland Security]."
Southers earlier provided a similarly vague answer to the question of collective-bargaining rights. Pistole, properly tutored by his administration handlers, will no doubt follow the same script.
Getting him on the job is important to agency employees who think he would be able to increase the status of an agency that at one point wasn't taken seriously, said Kimberly Kraynak, a behavior-detection officer and president of AFGE Local 332 at Pittsburgh International Airport. She hopes Pistole's FBI pedigree will continue the agency's push to be in the top ranks of the nation's intelligence and law enforcement operations.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this guy gets in," she said.