AFGE wins vote for TSOs

Joe Davidson
Columnist June 23, 2011

It’s been a long time coming: Transportation security officers have finally voted for union representation.

The American Federation of Government Employees won a protracted labor organizing contest Thursday when it beat the National Treasury Employees Union with an 8,903 to 8,447 vote in a runoff election. More than 43,000 officers were eligible to vote.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

In a major victory for AFGE and labor organizing in general, the vote allows the union to be the exclusive bargaining agent for the officers who screen passengers and baggage at the nation’s airports. It is the largest group of federal employees ever organized, and the organizing campaign was the largest current one in the country.

Yet despite the importance of the vote, the atmosphere in the Federal Labor Relations Authority meeting room was subdued when the tally was announced. The few AFGE officials there shared a quiet hug but did not gloat in front of the small group of representatives from the Transportation Security Administration, the FLRA and NTEU, whose officials offered congratulatory handshakes.

Bill Lyons, AFGE’s first TSO organizer, was at the announcement. “It feels good,” he said.

The AFGE victory comes after a month-long, sometimes negative runoff contest that ended Tuesday. The union had been organizing TSOs for about nine years.

“We are obviously thrilled with the election results but more importantly are delighted that the transportation security officers now will have the full union representation they rightly deserve. AFGE thanks the TSOs for their support and faith in our union,” said AFGE President John Gage. “AFGE anticipates developing a cooperative and cohesive relationship with TSA as we move to forge a collective-bargaining contract that TSOs so desperately need. We will be reaching out to TSOs at airports across the country for their input as to what they would like to see in a contract.”

NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley was as gracious in defeat as the AFGE reps were in victory. She said her unionprobably would not challenge the results.

“While I am disappointed TSA officers did not choose NTEU, I know they face a number of significant obstacles in securing the kind of workplace and work environment they want and deserve, and I wish them well in reaching those objectives,” Kelley said.

An earlier six-week election period ended with no clear winner. Then neither AFGE nor NTEU won a majority of the votes cast, because too many officers chose the “no union” option. Only the two unions were on the runoff ballot.

Both times, fewer than half of eligible officers voted. While AFGE won a majority of the votes cast in the runoff, it took only about 20 percent of the eligible vote. At one point, Gage said he had about 13,000 members, including supervisors. Yesterday, he said about 10,000 of his members were eligible to vote.

In telephone interviews, Gage and Kelley said more officers did not vote at least in part because of the difficulties unions had in campaigning at airports.

“Access to employees was an issue throughout the campaign,” Kelley said. Even with that, however, Gage said the turnout was in line with other union elections.

The campaign drew attention from outside the federal workplace because of the big boost it gave in general to unions, whose membership has been in decline, and in particular to public-sector unions. Public-sector labor groups have suffered serious setbacks at the state level.

The AFL-CIO strongly supported member union AFGE, which said it would bring the backing of organized labor to the cause of TSOs. NTEU touted its independence and played heavily on its representation of Customs and Border Protection officers to show what it could do for the airport screeners.

Both unions attacked the TSA’s pay-for-performance system and waged vigorous if sometimes angry campaigns. When NTEU distributed a flier that said AFGE provided “no representation for $3.4 million in dues AFGE receives each year from its TSA members,” AFGE responded with a lawsuit asking the D.C. Superior Court to stop NTEU from spreading what AFGE called lies. AFGE also distributed a flier saying: “NTEU lied about AFGE’s finances. NTEU lied about AFGE’s representation. Do they lie about everything?”

After years of lobbying Congress and wanting the Bush and Obama administrations to permit collective bargaining for TSOs, the unions received good news in November when FLRA ruled that a vote could be held to select an exclusive bargaining agent for the officers. Then in February, TSA Administrator John Pistole issued a decision that allowed the officers limited collective-bargaining rights. On Thursday, he reiterated that “TSA simply will not negotiate on security-related matters.”

At the same time, Republicans empowered by winning the House in November took aim at those limited rights. This month, the House approved legislation that would block the TSA from bargaining collectively with its employees.

Raining on the union parade was Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who called the vote “a significant setback for the traveling public.”

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