TSA Screeners May Get Union Rights

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Take it as a sign of the times.

As part of a bill to follow through on recommendations of the 9/11 commission, House Democrats have included a provision that would give union rights to about 43,000 airport screeners at the Transportation Security Administration.

The TSA has not allowed federal screeners to join unions -- like other federal employees -- since Congress created the agency in 2001 after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Bush administration's ban has drawn steady opposition from federal unions, especially the American Federation of Government Employees.

The provision in the House bill, scheduled for floor action today, is based on a measure sponsored last year by Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) aimed at permitting screeners to engage in collective bargaining. The Lowey proposal drew bipartisan support but failed to move out of committee by one vote.

The decision by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, to include the union-rights provision can be taken as a signal that the new Congress will be open to the arguments of organized labor on federal personnel issues.

Thompson's provision would require the Homeland Security Department to apply the same management system to all TSA employees, including screeners. With that change, screeners would have the right to decide whether they wanted to be represented by a union and would be given job protections if they blow the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse.

The 9/11 commission did not address union rights or personnel rules but urged improvements in airport screening operations. AFGE maintains that collective bargaining rights help smooth agency operations because labor-management contracts provide a structure for addressing employee issues, including job performance.

Peter Winch, an organizer with AFGE, said the union had asked Democrats to put bargaining rights for TSA screeners "on the agenda for the first 100 hours." He continued, "It does not make sense to keep these employees from collective bargaining rights when other Department of Homeland Security employees have those rights."

The TSA has said that collective bargaining is not appropriate for airport passenger and baggage screeners because of their national security mission and because the agency requires the ability to make personnel staffing changes rapidly in response to threats. In the law creating the TSA, Congress left it to the Bush administration to determine such issues as union rights for screeners.

Asked for a comment yesterday, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department said he could not discuss pending legislation.

AFGE has fought the TSA ban but has been rebuffed in federal courts. The union has signed up about 1,500 screeners as members and helps them deal with disciplinary actions, workers' compensation and equal employment opportunity, Winch said.

The House provision, if approved, would go to the Senate. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, will support the House provision, his spokeswoman said yesterday.

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