By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; A13
An unsuccessful attempt by an inept terrorist with explosive underpants to blow up a passenger plane has reignited the debate over collective-bargaining rights for transportation security officers.
TSOs are the federal employees who operate X-ray machines and search luggage in the effort to prevent the maniacal from boarding airliners at U.S. airports. Their good works would not have stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from leaving Amsterdam for Detroit. But his alleged crack at downing the aircraft has brought sharp attention to one senator's fight against union organizing.
To union leaders, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) does not seem as fanatical as Abdulmutallab might be, but the senator's strident opposition to the nomination of Erroll Southers, President Obama's choice to head the Transportation Security Administration, makes the gentleman from Greenville appear relatively extreme.
Despite bipartisan support for Southers, DeMint has obstructed the nomination because he opposes collective bargaining for TSOs, even though Southers has not said he favors it. In fact, DeMint makes a good point when he criticizes Southers for evading the issue.
DeMint "gives hypocrisy a bad name," fumed John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "I watched him on the talk shows. . . . I was screaming at the TV," he added.
What gets Gage and others so upset are DeMint's claims that collective bargaining for transportation security officers would hurt national security. Here's what DeMint wrote on Sunday in the Greenville News:
"Consider how the TSA system works now. When the plot by terrorists from the UK was uncovered in 2006, new rules on carrying liquids onboard went into effect within 12 hours. If TSA had been unionized then, officials would have had to first ask permission of union bosses. And if the unions decided the changes were too burdensome on their employees, weeks or months of negotiations could have ensued, before any changes were made. Even in their recent response to the attempt by Abdulmutallab, TSA officials reassigned staff and changed screening procedures within hours, a quick move that would be nearly impossible under collective bargaining with union bosses."
Not true, says the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. "It is inexcusable to continue jeopardizing the safety of Americans while engaging in a misguided debate over collective bargaining rights for Transportation Security Officers," it said in a statement. The association is not a union and would not represent the TSOs under a collective-bargaining agreement. But the organization, which includes, among others, FBI agents and air marshals, does support bargaining rights for TSOs.
"Under exigent circumstances, TSA would be fully capable to deploy its assets without any negative impact or restriction by the collective-bargaining process," the association president, Jon Adler, said in an interview. "The collective-bargaining process should not be touted as a Darth Vader obstacle to TSA deploying TSOs in a national emergency."
Collective bargaining could bolster national security, labor organizers argue, by boosting morale in an agency that has suffered from dismal ratings in employee surveys. "Collective bargaining would give TSA employees a voice in their workplace, allowing them to join together to make meaningful improvements to their work lives and thereby increase stability, professionalism and morale at the agency, all of which will enhance national security," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
Her union and Gage's will campaign for the right to negotiate on behalf of TSOs once collective-bargaining rights are granted, either administratively or through pending legislation.
But Southers won't say if he favors collective bargaining. In written responses to eight questions related to collective bargaining for TSOs, Southers gave Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) some version of this non-answer: "If confirmed, I would first like to engage all relevant stakeholders prior to making any recommendation regarding collective bargaining and how it might best be structured."
Yet, since President Obama supports collective-bargaining rights, it's doubtful Southers would recommend against it. It's even harder to imagine the unions going to bat for him if they had any doubt he would rule against them on this marquee issue.
DeMint at least got it right when he wrote: "It seems that the only person who pays any attention to TSA who hasn't formed an opinion is Erroll Southers, the man who wants to run the agency."
DeMint's article and Southers's replies to questions on collective bargaining can be found with this column at http://washingtonpost.com/fedpage.