Union Rallies for Representation at TSA

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

AFGE calls for unionization despite no collective bargaining

A labor union continued Wednesday its press for improvements in working conditions at agencies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)--an effort that included a petition to grant union representation to screeners at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Monday filed a petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) to permit the union officially to represent about 40,000 transportation security officers (TSOs). More than 30 percent of TSOs have elected to join a union, the AFGE said, even if DHS has not granted them collective bargaining rights.

"AFGE is very proud today to seek sole representation of the TSA bargaining unit," AFGE National President John Gage said in a statement. "AFGE began serving the TSA workforce the day the agency was created."

AFGE membership among screeners has grown from 13 in 2003 to about 13,000 today, Gage added, although AFGE cannot bargain with TSA management for improved workplace conditions, pay, and other employment matters.

The union held a rally at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO, of which it is a member, in Washington, DC, Tuesday. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), who has introduced a bill to grant TSOs collective bargaining rights (HR 1881), attended in support of the cause.

AFGE first filed a petition to represent TSOs in 2003. FLRA dismissed the move, judging that it did not have the authority to grant TSOs bargaining rights. But AFGE declared that FLRA could have permitted the election of a union without addressing the need for collective bargaining rights, a distinction it hopes new FLRA membership might embrace.

The current head of FLRA, Carol Pope, dissented from the FLRA majority decision in 2003, citing the ability of unions to do more for its members than engage in collective bargaining.

AFGE pointed to a union's ability to present the views of its members to federal management, present facts and opinions to lawmakers in Congress, assist its members during disciplinary hearings, and to represent its members in grievance filings.

Ideally, the TSA administrator would grant collective bargaining rights to TSOs, the AFGE said, but moving forward on union representation for TSOs would still benefit them even without those rights.

A rival union, which serves as the exclusive union for officers at US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), acknowledged the need for collective bargaining at TSA Monday but protested AFGE's move to become the agency's exclusive union.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), said it would file for an election between it and AFGE among TSOs should the FLRA grant the AFGE petition to permit TSOs to organize.

"Should the FLRA determine that this petition is valid, NTEU is ready to compete for and win a union election in TSA," Kelley said in a statement Monday. "However, we question the timing of pursuing exclusive representative status without the existence of collective bargaining rights. More specifically, we question how having an exclusive representative, without collective bargaining, will bring about real, meaningful improvements to TSOs' work lives."

While NTEU would fight AFGE for representation of TSOs, Kelley expressed sympathy for the "frustration that motivates" AFGE's move, saying unionization would enable the TSA workforce to address workplace issues that hurt TSO effectiveness and morale.

Republicans in Congress have steadfastly opposed union rights for TSOs, asserting that collective bargaining would interfere with national security. TSOs objecting to workplace conditions and duty schedules could jeopardize aviation security, they argue.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-NC) stood by his objections to collective bargaining rights for TSOs in his opposition to the nomination of Erroll Southers to head TSA. Southers had not taken a position on whether screeners should be able to organize, but DeMint demanded that Southers express his opposition to unions at TSA. Southers eventually withdrew his nomination over the issue.

AFGE planned Wednesday to call upon the Obama administration to address other issues at DHS as well. Law enforcement agencies across the federal government face severe understaffing, a lack of safety equipment, and an expansion of law enforcement officer status (and thus enhanced benefits) for all federal officers engaged in police work.

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