Members of Congress push for TSA contract

The push to get bargaining rights for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers began a decade ago. It was a long, slow struggle until late 2010, when developments started coming at a quick clip.

Almost 19 months ago, the Federal Labor Relations Authority allowed the officers, who screen baggage and passengers at the nation’s airports, to vote on union representation. Sixteen months ago, TSA Administrator John Pistole granted limited bargaining rights to transportation security officers (TSOs). Twelve months ago, after a runoff election, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) won the votes of TSOs to be their bargaining representative.

But now, a year later, airport screeners in one of the government’s largest bargaining units still don’t have a contract.

“I’m quite sure the workers are frustrated . . . and a little anxious,” said Bill Lyons, AFGE’s first TSO organizer and acting director of the union’s membership and organization department.

The delay has been noticed on Capitol Hill, where two key members of Congress have told Pistole and AFGE President John Gage to hurry up and make a deal. Democratic Reps. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) and Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.) said the labor negotiations are at a critical spot.

In similar letters sent Thursday to Pistole and Gage, the lawmakers said that unless a final contract is agreed to within 30 days, outstanding issues will go to “a unitary dispute resolution system,” meaning arbitration, and that would further delay “implementation of critical workplace rights for TSOs.”

Thompson is the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. Lowey is a member of the Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security.

Their sense of frustration with the pace of contract negotiations was apparent when they reminded Pistole and Gage of the 10-year battle to gain bargaining rights for the security officers, which Thompson and Lowey championed on Capitol Hill.

Although the letters were similar, the one to Pistole was more pointed.

“Now is the time for you to show leadership and personally commit yourself to securing a timely and fair agreement and implementing a third-party grievance review process for TSOs,” Thompson and Lowey told the administrator.

The union favors a third-party dispute resolution process, such as the Merit Systems Protection Board provides, but that apparently is one of the items the TSA finds objectionable.

The TSA did not comment on the negotiating details.

“TSA and AFGE have been working on a mutual agreement that represents the collective interests of our hard-working employees,” said David A. Castelveter, the agency’s director of external communications. “TSA looks forward to concluding the agreement with AFGE in a timely fashion.”

In a related development, Gage sent a memo to union officers Friday, claiming a “Landmark Arbitration Victory” over the TSA. Gage said an arbitration panel agreed with the AFGE that arbitration decisions regarding contract negotiations would be final.

“TSA claimed that if the parties fail to reach an agreement during negotiations, any ruling by an impasse arbitration panel would not be final,” Gage wrote. “Management’s interpretation of the process . . . would have created an endless loop that would prevent the TSOs from ever obtaining a contract.”

In a news release announcing the arbitration decision, Gage said: “Our first priority remains to negotiate a contract that improves the work lives of TSOs, and one that the officers will support and ratify. This win ensures the finality of the negotiations process and enables TSOs to get a fair collective bargaining agreement.”

Another big issue for the union is the agency’s pay-for-performance system known as PASS (Performance Accountability and Standards System). Many security officers don’t like it.

“It’s huge. . . . It’s the most important thing” for his members, Gage said in an interview.

Compensation issues, however, and anything related to security were excluded from negotiations when Pistole granted the bargaining rights.

Yet, without some action by TSA to make PASS less arbitrary, and agreement on an outside dispute resolution process, Gage said it would be difficult to write a contract that his members will accept. “We got a long way to go,” he said.

SEC pays well, ranks low

Wednesday’s Federal Diary said “a report by the Partnership for Public Service says the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. ranks No. 1 among 30 large agencies on employee satisfaction with pay.” In response, a few readers pointed out that the FDIC and some other agencies are on a different pay scale than that used for most federal employees.

That’s true, but the Partnership’s report indicated that an alternative pay scale alone does not account for employees’ satisfaction with pay. According to the Partnership, “the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), another financial regulatory agency, is also funded by fees . . . and has special pay flexibilities. Its employees have the highest average salary of any large federal agency, but in contrast to FDIC, the SEC had one of the lowest 2011 pay satisfaction scores (57.8) and recorded the largest decrease on this issue — down 17.6 percent from 2010.” (The Partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post).

“We expect that our scores will go up when we are able to put in place a robust pay for performance system,” said Lacey Dingman, the SEC’s human resources director. “The agency and union [a national treasury employees union] are beginning the process of establishing what the new compensation structure will be for the agency, which we hope will include a strong pay for performance system.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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