Union moves to represent airport screeners before government OKs collective bargaining rights

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The nation's largest federal employee union pushed ahead Monday with efforts to represent about 40,000 airport screeners even though the government has not given them collective bargaining rights.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said his union wants to be ready to begin contract negotiations as soon as bargaining rights are granted.

The move could pressure the White House to more quickly name an administrator to head the Transportation Security Administration. That official could make the changes.

"We think the administration has to step up to the plate here," Gage said.

Workers at the agency have tried for years to win union rights similar to those of other federal employees, such as basic protections from overwork, dangerous conditions and retaliation if they report security breaches.

Republican opponents claim such bargaining rights could jeopardize national security and make it more difficult to make staff changes in response to terrorism threats.

President Barack Obama pledged during his campaign to get the screeners bargaining rights. But Erroll Southers, Obama's choice to head the agency, withdrew last month, saying his nomination had become a lightning rod for criticism from those with a political agenda.

Southers' confirmation had been blocked by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., an opponent of granting screeners collective bargaining rights.

Gage criticized GOP critics who see union bargaining rights as a security threat. He pointed to the thousands of other unionized federal workers who protect the public from terrorism, including the border patrol, customs and immigration agents.

Ordinarily, a union would wait until workers have bargaining rights before seeking to represent them. Gage said he is optimistic that the Federal Labor Relations Authority would allow AFGE to reverse the process.

When Congress created the Homeland Security Department, it specifically ruled out collective bargaining rights for screeners, who were becoming federal employees under the TSA.

AFGE already represents more than 12,000 TSA workers at more than 100 airports in other matters, such as grievance and disciplinary proceedings.

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