Will Obama win lead to collective bargaining rights at TSA?

WASHINGTON -- The American Federation of Government Employees hopes Barack Obama's election will serve as the springboard to provide collective bargaining rights to Transportation Security Administration screeners.

In an Oct. 20 letter, Obama said "it is unacceptable for transportation security screeners to work under unfair rules and without workplace protections."

Collective bargaining rights, he said, "ensure that federal agencies run as effectively as possible and are able to focus on protecting our national security." In addition, collective bargaining agreements "provide an excellent structure to address issues such as a fair promotion system, the scheduling of overtime, shift rotation, and health and safety improvements."

When TSA was established, the Department of Homeland Security secretary was permitted to decide whether to allow TSA employees to have collective bargaining rights. The authority was delegated to the head of TSA, who said collective bargaining would interfere with the agency's national security mission.

Legislation is necessary to authorize collective bargaining rights for TSA screeners. Last year, a bill was introduced by Rep. Nita Lowery, D-N.Y., to repeal provisions of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which created the TSA. Lowery said the ATSA gives the TSA administrator free rein to "employ, appoint, discipline, terminate, and fix the compensation, terms and conditions of employment" for airport screeners. But the bill stalled soon after it was introduced, and Lowery staffers would not predict whether it will be reintroduced in the 111th Congress.

Even though TSA screeners can't bargain collectively, many have elected to join the AFGE or National Treasury Employees Union in hopes of having more influence over their working conditions. Union representatives can still represent screeners in grievance hearings, EEO complaints, and workers' compensation cases, and file unfair labor practice complaints.

In 2006, the International Labor Organization's Committee on Freedom of Association ruled that the Bush administration should reconsider its position and extend collective bargaining rights to screeners. The nonbinding decision was never adopted.

The AFGE said providing collective bargaining rights for TSA screeners and restoring labor-management partnerships will provide frontline employees with more input on how work is done and will improve morale and productivity.

A union organizer who spoke on background said he expected "the different atmosphere at the top" will help both efforts to increase union membership and improve manager-employee relations.

New employees eligible for membership receive a letter from AFGE soon after they begin work that explains their rights to join the union. But the overall sentiment against labor organizations and friction between political managers and other employees over the role federal unions should play in the workforce has taken its toll.

The organizer said he hoped Obama would follow former President Clinton's lead and issue an Executive Order reinstating labor-management partnerships. The EO required regular meetings between political managers and union members to help improve communication and address potential problems before they became serious. The EO also required agency management to negotiate with the union over permissive issues, including the numbers, types and grades of employees as well as the technology, methods and means of performing work.

Bush rescinded the EO shortly after taking office.

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