TSA pushes back on unionization campaign

The Transportation Security Administration is pushing back on requests from rival unions to begin preparing for an election, saying certain employees should not be eligible to join a national union, and that TSA should not have to begin posting information about the possibility of an election until legal issues are resolved.

"While a certain amount of employee interest and debate are to be expected in a union campaign and election, unnecessary confusion and distraction within the ranks of these front-line employees must be avoided," Marc Pilcher, an attorney-adviser in the chief counsel's office at TSA, wrote in an April 12 filing to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

The agency said it should not be required to post the petitions for a union election filed by the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees until it is clear what authority the FLRA has to order an election. In a 2003 decision, the authority declared that it did not have jurisdiction over TSA. Pilcher wrote that because "the statutory provisions and determination [that resulted in the 2003 decision] have not been amended and remain in effect," the FLRA must explain its new position before ordering action.

But NTEU President Colleen Kelley said TSA and its parent agency, the Homeland Security Department, could allow an election to proceed without waiting for the FLRA to order one.

Pilcher's filing also said bomb appraisal officers should not be included in the group of TSA employees who would be permitted to vote on union representation or join a union. He said bomb officers are in different pay bands than most transportation security workers and "do not share a community of interest" because their duties are different. The agency also might request the exclusion of behavior detection officers on national security grounds, Pilcher wrote. He noted that TSA is changing the job duties for these employees, who are trained to observe passengers for signs of intent to commit crimes, and is working to get them security clearances.

Both Kelley and AFGE President John Gage have objected to the idea that unionization makes employees less effective at working toward national security. And Kelley said it was time TSA and DHS decided whether TSA employees should be allowed not only to have union representation, but also to bargain collectively. The TSA administrator currently has the discretion to decide whether employees can bargain as a group over issues such as working conditions.

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