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Spirited competition: Vying for union votes from airport screeners

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If Colleen M. Kelley still skied, this would be the Winter Olympics.

If John Gage still played baseball, this would be the World Series.

But they’re well beyond their prime years as athletes, and they long ago traded their sporting passions for labor organizing.

Now they are engaged in the contest of a lifetime.

Gage and Kelley are locked in a spirited competition for the votes of transportation security officers. When the results of a six-week election are announced, perhaps on Wednesday, the result will be a testament to the organizing skills of one and a big bummer for the other.

Often they are on the same team. As presidents of the two largest federal labor organizations, Kelley of the National Treasury Employees Union and Gage of the American Federation of Government Employees frequently form a united front — against such things as the two-year federal pay freeze and excessive contracting of government work, and for the right of transportation security officers to elect union representation and bargain collectively.

When the officers who screen people and baggage at the nation’s airports won those rights in recent months, it moved the two unions from the preliminaries to the championship. Each organization had been signing up security officers as members for years and pressing for the screeners to have organizing rights like other federal employees.

AFGE is the largest federal union with almost 270,000 members, according to Gage, who has been president since 2003. Kelley, president since 1999, said NTEU has 88,000 members.

Tuesday is the last day of voting in what is the largest ever federal union organizing effort. With 44,000 people in the Transportation Security Administration bargaining unit, it also is the largest current union campaign in the nation. A victory will be a huge win not just for the triumphant union but also for Kelley or Gage, both of whom have wooed security officers for years.

In addition to their positions on most federal labor issues, the two share other characteristics. They are close in age, Kelley born in 1951 and Gage in 1946, and hail from union families in Pittsburgh. Each came up through the ranks, joining their unions after getting federal jobs, Kelley with the IRS and Gage with the Social Security Administration.

Each is well regarded as a labor leader.

“They both are very effective in terms of getting things done,” said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

But that effectiveness has different styles.

Kelley, a certified public accountant, is the analytical type who “knows issues back and forth. . . better than anyone in the room,” said Randy Erwin, NFFE’s legislative director.

Gage is more demonstrative. He could have come from central casting as a labor leader. He is a “strong kind of leader,” Erwin said, who “will tell you exactly how he feels on an issue.”

Before joining the government, Gage was a catcher in the Baltimore Orioles system. He still likes to coach girls basketball and boys baseball, but problems with his back and legs don’t enable him to be the athlete he once was.

Now his off-work pursuits are of a gentler variety. He reads voraciously and gardens at home and in a balcony outside his office; his flowers decorate the desks of co-workers.

Kelley’s athletic pursuits also have been curtailed by injury; she tore a meniscus while skiing in Montana. She was very good, taking on the blue-square and black-diamond hills that are for those who know what they’re doing.

Instead of racing down snow-covered mountains, Kelley now takes photographs, plays Sudoku and spends all the time she can with her family in Pittsburgh.

Her interest in unions comes from that family. He father was a truck driver and a Teamster.

“From the time I was a kid, I always knew that you belonged to a union,” she said. “And that was important to our family and our family values and our way of life.”

As a teenager, she worked in an ice cream shop that was unionized.

When she joined the IRS and learned it had a union, she said “sign me up.”

Gage, too, inherited union values. His dad and uncle were in the United Steelworkers Union, and the family lived a short walk from the mill. “The union hall was part of growing up,” he said.

His dad was an ardent union supporter who had an all or nothing approach, the same attitude some who know Gage ascribe to him.

“They had to set up a picket line and make sure no one crossed it,” he recalled. “That wasn’t always friendly.”

The organizing of transportation security officers has been genteel by comparison. But, inevitably, it has created a wedge between the two labor leaders.

Gage: “There obviously is some animosity between the organizations.”

Kelley: AFGE has not “always focused on the issues, and they have chosen instead to try to make NTEU the issue in the campaign.”

Now the campaign is almost over.

“Both Colleen and John are very good representatives for their members,” said John Palguta, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service.

Soon they’ll know whether those members include transportation security officers.

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