In that ruling, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said workers and their unions have the right to sue for violations of their rights of free speech and association, despite a post-Sept. 11 law giving the government broad power to hire and fire airport screeners.
That law made all 56,000 airport baggage screeners in the nation federal employees. In January 2003, the newly created Transportation Security Administration declared it would not recognize or negotiate with unions as representatives of the screeners, saying unions could interfere with the flexibility needed to respond rapidly to terrorist threats.
Gavello was hired at the airport in March 2003 and started posting union materials in an employee break room that fall. According to his suit, his bosses warned him not to conduct union activities on the job in November 2003, suspended him for two weeks for talking to a co-worker about the union, and fired him in February 2004 after he filed a grievance.
The agency said Gavello had breached security by giving a copy of the grievance letter that mentioned baggage inspection problems to an attorney for the American Federation of Government Employees. His suit didn't challenge the agency's anti-union policy, which still exists, but claimed his firing violated his right to speak freely and associate with the union.
Gavello, now a private investigator in Santa Rosa, said he hopes the case will help other federal employees and lead to union rights at his former agency. "It will only make (the agency) a stronger unit for the safety of our citizens," he said.
He said he had received $60,000 of the settlement as compensation for lost wages, and that the other $20,000 had gone to the American Federation of Government Employees for its costs and attorneys' fees.
Gony Frieder Goldberg, the union's lawyer, said the case represents a modest step toward holding the Transportation Security Administration to the same standards as other government bodies in their labor policies.
The agency "has argued they are not bound by any law," Goldberg said. "We hope they're starting to realize they cannot act indiscriminately."
There was no immediate comment from the agency.