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Federal workers union pushes to represent airport screeners

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By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In a bid to jump-start the effort to organize airport security officers, the American Federation of Government Employees announced Monday that it is filing a petition seeking an election to represent them.

The petition to the Federal Labor Relations Authority is an escalation in the long battle over collective bargaining rights for about 40,000 transportation security officers (TSOs) who screen luggage at the nation's airports.

The AFGE and the National Treasury Employees Union have signed up TSOs as members in preparation for an election. Although some TSOs are union members, they do not have collective bargaining rights. Until now, the labor organizations have worked to get those rights through administrative and legislative routes, before seeking an election.

But the recent withdrawal of Erroll Southers as President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration was a setback for the unions, which had hoped for a TSA ruling that would allow collective bargaining. An election to determine which union would represent the workers would have followed.

"While it would be ideal for a TSA administrator to have granted collective bargaining rights first, the two do not have to go hand-in-hand," AFGE President John Gage said in a statement Monday. "By settling the question of representation first, AFGE will be ready to begin negotiations as soon as the bargaining rights are established."

Gaining the right to represent the airport screeners is a top priority for both unions. The winner would get a major membership boost and significantly raise its profile among federal employees.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, responded to the AFGE announcement by saying that her union would win any election. But she added, "It would be a far better scenario for employees if the administration would grant them collective bargaining rights. It is unclear what an exclusive representative would mean under this structure."

By petitioning for an election at this point, Gage is making an aggressive move to win the support of TSOs. He announced the petition at a news conference filled with delegates in town for the union's legislative conference. It was like throwing red meat to hungry lions.

The desire for collective bargaining rights is demonstrated by the 13,000 to 14,000 screeners -- about a third of the total -- the AFGE says it has signed up, even without the full slate of rights that generally go with union membership. The National Treasury Employees Union declined to say how many TSO members it has.

There's no guarantee that the Federal Labor Relations Authority will grant the AFGE's petition. In fact, the agency ruled against the union seven years ago when it made a similar play. But the silver lining Gage sees in that defeat was the dissent filed by Carol Pope. Then a member of the agency under Republican President George W. Bush, she is now chairman of the agency under a labor-friendly Democrat, President Obama.

"AFGE believes that FLRA majority [under Bush] confused the issues of allowing for an election without collective bargaining rights," Gage said, "but that the current authority members may now understand the distinction."

As part of the effort to demonstrate its strength among TSOs and with organized labor generally, the AFGE plans to rally union members outside the AFL-CIO headquarters, just north of the White House, on Tuesday morning. Members of Congress and leaders of other unions are scheduled to address the event.

If Gage's news conference is any indication, one of the verbal targets at the rally will probably be Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who took the lead against Southers. DeMint blocked the nomination because he opposes unionization of the security officers, even though Southers had not publicly endorsed it.

Gage repeatedly said it was an insult for DeMint to say that collective bargaining could hurt national security because, in DeMint's words, TSA "officials would have had to first ask permission of union bosses" before implementing security measures.

DeMint's statement ignored the fact that all sorts of federal, state and local law enforcement officers, and others who protect national security, are union members. As Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told the conference, a firefighter rushing to save victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks could "have pulled out his union card."

Generosity exceeds expectations

Federal employees have a right to be proud.

They serve the public every day, then reach into their pockets to help the less fortunate. Local federal workers raised $66 million in 2009 for more than 4,000 charities, the Combined Federal Campaign for the National Capital Area planned to announce Tuesday. That exceeded the goal by $2 million and is $3.3 million dollars more than the previous year.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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