Union Makes Appeal to Airport Screeners

"We've got to catch 'em when they're off duty," Mr. Winch says, scurrying through BWI's crowded lobby, a bulging file folder under his arm. He spots a prospect on her way home for the day and tries to hand her literature. But the woman, a 33-year-old mother of four, just shrugs. She's thinking of quitting after three months as a screener to attend nursing school. "I'm tired of low-wage jobs," she says.

Since February, before the new Transportation Security Administration had hired a single screener, Mr. Winch and a team of 15 organizers have been working the lobbies of 10 of the country's biggest airports. Now the battle is being joined in earnest. Today, the Bush administration plans to announce that the TSA has taken over passenger checkpoints at all 429 U.S. airports. And as early as this week, the AFGE plans to ask the Federal Labor Relations Authority to let screeners at BWI and New York's La Guardia Airport vote on whether they want union representation.

Unionizing the screeners would be a major feat for Mr. Winch -- and a source of heartburn for many Republicans, who feared increasing Big Labor's clout when they gave in to Democratic demands last year that airport-security workers be federalized. The TSA, one of the biggest agencies due to be shifted into the proposed Homeland Security Department, employs more than 40,000 screeners, a potential windfall for the AFGE, which now represents 600,000 federal employees.

But getting airport screeners to join the union, or to even express interest, isn't easy for Mr. Winch, the 43-year-old son of an educator who was part of New York City's famous teachers' strike of 1968. He has been unionizing federal agencies for more than a decade, but this assignment involves unique challenges. Last week, the organizers almost got tossed out of BWI for lurking near a checkpoint, apparently a security risk. Their mere presence annoys the screeners' bosses, a fact not lost on the targeted workers, many of whom don't want to be seen talking to the organizers; all refuse to speak to a reporter on the record.

To Mr. Winch, BWI is potentially fertile ground. He says he has heard that lots of BWI screeners have quit since the TSA took over security at the airport in April. "TSA has this attitude that there's plenty more where they came from," Mr. Winch says. "That may be the case, but that's not how you build a work force."

Approaching a gaggle of screeners at a checkpoint, Mr. Winch spots a TSA manager who he suspects is monitoring his movements and beats a hasty retreat. He soon finds a better locale -- a checkpoint obscured from the bosses by ticket counters. Here, his team has some success because a few friendly gate screeners earlier had offered to help encourage fellow workers to speak to the organizers.

To encourage a young man to sign a card asserting that he wishes to be represented by the union, the organizers boast about the union's Washington clout. "We have six full-time lobbyists on Capitol Hill," organizer Kevin Droste says, adding that the union could "hammer out a contract" that would guarantee him time off for family emergencies. The cards are key to AFGE's efforts, because they will be used to persuade federal authorities to allow a vote. But the screener is nervous, avoiding eye contact. "What about repercussions?" he asks, mulling whether to sign. After they promise him confidentiality, he fills out a card.

Other workers need less convincing. One young woman takes a card and fills it out without saying a word. But some appear weary of the organizers' persistence. "Got one yesterday -- about 10 of 'em," says a young man, blowing past Mr. Winch's outstretched hand.

Mr. Winch spends much of his time compiling workers' complaints to better tailor his pitches. He says screeners in Albuquerque, N.M., complain the TSA doesn't provide enough latex gloves for searching luggage. Workers at Reagan National Airport near Washington claim the TSA hasn't paid them for overtime hours.

Speaking for the TSA, Transportation Department spokesman Leonardo Alcivar says the agency is "consistently evaluating the needs of the workers" and addressing them on a "case-by-case basis."

"Any time you go from zero to over 44,000 new employees in less than a year, you're going to have minor bumps along the way," he says. Mr. Alcivar says the TSA is experiencing turnover rates of between 30% and 35% at airports where it has assumed staffing of security checkpoints; government studies have found that the old regime of private security firms had average turnover rates that exceeded 100% at some airports. TSA officials also note that entry-level screeners now typically earn about $12 an hour, well above the minimum-wage levels paid by many private security firms. There's a certain irony in Mr. Winch's efforts to recruit the screeners, because any success he enjoys may be short-lived.

By law, the Bush administration could still bar screeners from forming unions on national-security grounds, though experts think that's unlikely. "It's hard to make the argument that these jobs are somehow so sensitive they should be exempt from bargaining," says Paul Light, director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution.

James Loy, the TSA's acting chief, hasn't signaled the administration's intentions, and he probably won't until he can consult with whomever Mr. Bush picks to head the Homeland Security Department, which is being created by legislation Congress plans to send the president this week. Mr. Winch's union says Mr. Loy has promised to keep an open mind, and the AFGE is courting Republicans for support by bringing screeners to Capitol Hill.

The Bush administration's attitude toward unionized federal workers grew even more politically charged last week, when the White House announced plans to make it easier to put hundreds of thousands of federal jobs up for competition with private-sector service firms; the plans have enraged union leaders.

But even if the administration allows unionization of the screeners, airport operators will have the option of replacing them with private workers in less than two years, according to the law that set up the TSA last year.

"We're taking a risk," Mr. Winch says of all the resources he's putting into the organizing campaign. But he figures most airports won't revert to the cut-rate private firms that came under harsh scrutiny after the Sept. 11 attacks. That would be "bad publicity," he says.

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