Union Looks to Democrats on TSA Screener Rights

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Baggage and passenger screeners at the Transportation Security Administration are not allowed to bargain over the terms and conditions of their employment, but the largest federal union hopes to get the Democratic majority in the next Congress to take another look at whether that ban is justified.

The American Federation of Government Employees, headed by John Gage, won a favorable opinion from a Geneva-based, U.N. agency, the International Labor Organization, on the issue of screener rights.

The ILO's Committee on Freedom of Association, in an opinion this month, said that it was concerned that the TSA's decision in 2003 to invoke national security considerations to block union representation "may impede unduly upon the rights of these federal employees."

Screeners, the committee said, are not engaged in "making national policy that may affect security" and are not engaged "in the administration of the state." Under those criteria, the committee said, TSA's 45,000 screeners should have collective bargaining rights.

The United States is a member of the ILO, which seeks to set worldwide labor standards. But ILO committee opinions are not binding, and the TSA said that the opinion will not change the agency's stance toward union representation.

In a statement, the TSA said Congress left it to the agency to decide whether to grant bargaining rights. The leeway to ban unions is contained in the 2001 Aviation Transportation Security Act, which created the agency after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Given the critical national security mission of our security officers, collective bargaining is not appropriate, and would reduce TSA's ability to make changes rapidly in response to threats," the TSA statement said.

Proposals to allow TSA screeners to unionize have not gained traction in Congress, but AFGE officials hope that will change when Democrats take control of the House and Senate next year. Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), who lost a vote on an amendment that would have let screeners engage in bargaining, plans to push the issue, her spokeswoman said.

Efforts by the AFGE to overturn the TSA ban through litigation also have been rebuffed by the government and in U.S. courts.

A key ruling came in 2003, when a regional director for the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which hears labor-management disputes inside the government, found that screeners were not entitled to a vote on union representation and that "Congress intended to treat security screeners differently than other employees of the agency."

Since Congress created the TSA, the agency has been folded into the Department of Homeland Security, where thousands of Border Patrol agents, Customs and Border Protection officers and others are represented by unions. The White House and Congress proposed curbing union rights at Homeland Security, but U.S. courts blocked the effort. The issue of how to deal with unions is back before the department.

Mark Roth, general counsel at the AFGE, said some members of Congress might have looked at collective bargaining as an impediment to a speedy launch of the agency, but he noted that four years have passed and that the TSA suffers from high turnover in the screener workforce.

"The agency has been stood up and is part of DHS. To keep its employees as separate and with less rights than other DHS employees, I think we can make the case that is no longer rational," he said.


Eileen Hayes Hurley, a leading intelligence research specialist in federal law enforcement, will retire Thursday after more than 40 years of federal service. Her career has included work on terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking at the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Naval Criminal Investigative Service and, currently, at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, where she is a branch chief.

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