By: Mickey McCarter
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Screeners at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) selected the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) as their union in a month-long election that ended this week, announced the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) Thursday.
TSA Administrator John Pistole welcomed the union to the cause of aviation security, emphasizing that his agency would not allow security to be compromised while engaging in negotiations with AFGE over employee benefits.
"The Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) has completed the initial counting of the ballots in the runoff union election at TSA. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has received a majority of the ballots that were cast. The results remain preliminary until they are certified by the FLRA," Pistole said in a statement.
"As always, the safety of the flying public is our top priority and TSA simply will not negotiate on security-related matters. Once the FLRA certifies the final election results, we hope and expect that the elected union will join us to continue to further strengthen performance and support TSA employees as they carry out our vital security mission," he added.
Pistole granted transportation security officers (TSOs) the opportunity to determine if they would like union representation to enter into collective bargaining with TSA earlier this year. The decision enabled TSOs to negotiate issues not related to security such as employee shifts, transfers, and awards. They cannot bargain on issues such as pay, testing, disciplinary standards, or deployments, according to TSA.
The screeners also cannot strike or stage a work slowdown under union representation. Pistole vowed in testimony before Congress earlier this year that he would fire any screeners that engaged in such behavior.
AFGE, part of the AFL-CIO, beat the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), 8,903-8,447, in the election, which began May 23 and ended June 21, FLRA announced. Screeners were able to vote via phone and Internet.
AFGE President John Gage declared that his union would help TSOs address workplace concerns.
"We are obviously thrilled with the election results, but more importantly are delighted that the Transportation Security Officers now will have the full union representation they rightly deserve. AFGE thanks the TSOs for their support and faith in our union," Gage said in a statement Thursday.
"AFGE anticipates developing a cooperative and cohesive relationship with TSA as we move to forge a collective bargaining contract that TSOs so desperately need. We will be reaching out to TSOs at airports across the country for their input as to what they would like to see in a contract. We recognize that TSOs in small airports have different concerns from those at large ones. With one nationwide contract, it is essential that we cover all the bases," he said.
AFGE would work with TSA to make certain that TSOs have "the tools and support" to accomplish their mission of securing US air travel.
"We have long argued that only a professional and highly motivated workforce can provide the security this country needs. AFGE is very proud to have stood behind TSOs for nine years, and is honored to stand beside them now as full partners in this fight for fair workplace protections," Gage said.
NTEU President Colleen Kelley expressed disappointment that her union did not win the election but applauded the next moves for screeners as they begin negotiations over a collective bargaining agreement.
"Securing a determination from TSA Administrator John S. Pistole granting TSA employees much-needed collective bargaining rights is the single most important workplace development in TSA's nearly 10-year history, and NTEU played the pivotal role in that accomplishment," Kelley said in a statement.
"Without NTEU's persistent efforts, including communications with President Obama and key members of Congress on this issue, TSA employees still would not have such rights, which are essential to the workplace improvements needed in their agency," she added.
TSA has been plagued by high turnover rates in the screener ranks and consistently rates near the bottom of the list of federal agencies in annual polls for the best places to work in government in recent years. The unions vowed to address employee concerns and thus boost morale at the agency.
Republicans in Congress have long criticized the idea of granting collective bargaining rights to screeners, arguing that a union would interfere with decisions on security. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, slammed the election results Thursday.
"The traveling public will be absolutely delighted to learn that big labor has captured the TSA's army of airport screeners," Mica lamented. "With the American Federation of Government Employees union selection, the nation's largest union for government workers will collectively bargain for nearly 50,000 of America's airport screeners. This would be the largest group ever taken over by the largest government employee union."
He continued, "I share the frustrations of TSA workers, who will continue to deal with a federal agency burdened with 3,800 TSA bureaucrats in Washington, DC, who make an average of $105,000 per year, and another 9,600 TSA administrative personnel across the nation. While collective bargaining for airport screeners may sound like a solution to a dysfunctional workplace, only a dramatic overhaul of TSA will provide a proper structure for improved employment conditions, employee respect, and the best possible security operations."
Mica called the unionization of TSOs "a significant setback for the traveling public."