Union representing airport screeners says it’s tough getting TSA to the table

Joe Davidson
Columnist December 19, 2011

The thrill of victory in June has become the dolor of frustration in December.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) celebrated a major victory this summer when it won the right to represent more than 40,000 transportation security officers.

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

But now, six months later, the enthusiasm of the campaign has morphed into the tough realities of labor relations with a bureaucracy that has its own ideas about change. Despite President Obama’s endorsement of collective bargaining for the officers when he ran for president and the decision of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to allow collective bargaining, the road to that goal and the budding relationship between organized labor and management at the agency have not always been smooth.

AFGE President John Gage met with TSA Administrator John Pistole on Monday afternoon, and Gage did not emerge happy.

“It could have been better,” he said in a telephone interview.

Contract negotiations have not been set. What has been scheduled is a Tuesday news conference during which Gage plans to accuse the TSA of not allowing agency workers basic due process rights available to other federal employees.

“TSA refuses to allow its employees the same due process rights afforded to other federal employees, including those at TSA’s head agency, the Department of Homeland Security,” Gage said. “You’d think at an agency that just ranked 232 out of 242 as the best federal agencies to work, securing a collective bargaining agreement and moving toward a more content workforce with at least a reasonable attrition rate would be more of a priority.”

The TSA has repeatedly ranked near the bottom of the Best Places to Work List compiled by the Partnership for Public Service. The list says the TSA ranks 227th out of 229 agencies on issues of effective leadership and fairness and 228th of 229 on pay and performance-based awards and advancement.

A TSA statement said the agency “offered third party review by US Coast Guard Administrative Law Judges for certain adverse actions, as well as third party neutrals mutually agreed to by AFGE and TSA for collective bargaining agreement violations and collective bargaining disputes.

“TSA is committed to ensuring that our employees continue to have due process protections such as those provided by the TSA Ombudsman, Office of Civil Rights and Liberties, and appeal rights before the recently created TSA Office of Professional Responsibility.”

Union and agency officials have talked in pre-negotiation meetings, but issues separate them, according to Gage. Due process is a key one.

“TSOs should be afforded the right to an independent third party with binding authority to deal with grievances and workplace disputes,” Gage said.

The TSA does have systems dealing with employee grievances, but the procedures do not allow for appeal to an independent third party, as Gage said is the case in other agencies and even in other parts of the Department of Homeland Security. “This is a showstopper for us.”

Labor relations aren’t the only thing on the TSA’s agenda.

The meeting between Gage and Pistole follows unrelated complaints from a key legislator that transportation security officers have engaged in ethnic profiling and a proposal from another lawmaker to privatize airport screening operations.

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, which oversees the TSA, has written to Pistole urging him to suspend the Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT, used by TSA behavior detection officers to look for passengers who exhibit suspicious behavior.

Citing media reports from Hono­lulu and Newark, Thompson said some officers allegedly used the technique to profile Mexican travelers as a way to drive up the officers’ productivity numbers.

Pistole responded in September to one of Thompson’s letters by saying SPOT training stresses “that racial or ethnic profiling is not tolerated and that it detracts from the real threat, as high-risk passengers do not fit any specific profile. If allegations of profiling arise, TSA immediately conducts an investigation and takes corrective action as warranted.

Pistole said a TSA manager in Newark received disciplinary action, the airport’s entire staff of behavior detection officers was retrained and new managers were installed.

Meanwhile, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) continues a push to privatize airport screening operations. In response, union officials have pointed to campaign contributions to Mica from people or organizations linked to companies that could benefit from privatization.

The Center for Responsive Politics confirmed contributions to him from executives of FirstLine Transportation Security and Covenant Aviation Security, companies that provide screening services. Mica’s office did not reply to telephone and e-mail requests for comment.

On Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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