By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 8:19 PM
Let the battle begin.
Friday's decision by the Federal Labor Relations Authority to allow airport security screeners to vote on union representation clears the way for a history-making election among federal government employees.
In a significant victory for organized labor, the FLRA ruled that 50,000 transportation security officers will be allowed to vote on union representation. Union leaders said this will be the largest such election ever in the federal sector. They expect the vote to be held early next year.
The decision clears the way for a showdown between the government's two largest labor organizations, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union.
It comes at a time when they, and federal employees generally, are increasingly on the defensive over the pay and size of the federal workforce. As union leaders put their election campaigns into full gear to win a large block of new members, they also will be fighting hard to ward off attempts to freeze or cut compensation and the number of employees.
Because there are so many transportation security officers (TSO), winning the right to represent them would be a major coup for the victorious union. Likewise, it could take years for the loser to recover.
"We are ready for an election, and we expect to win it," said NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley.
Of course, AFGE President John Gage says the same thing.
"We're going to spend what we have to spend and be very flexible in moving money and people to where we need them," he said. "We're not going to penny-pinch in running this campaign."
AFGE already has a 25-foot advertisement at Boston's Logan International Airport featuring endorsements from AFL-CIO union leaders urging TSOs to support AFGE, which is a member of the labor coalition. NTEU is independent.
The FLRA dismissed claims by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which argued that allowing unionization among the Transportation Security Administration employees "would post an 'unacceptable threat to national security.'â"
Congress apparently didn't agree with the foundation, according to the FLRA decision, because legislators could have, but did not, prohibit TSOs to organize.
The foundation also said that because 25 percent of TSOs have joined AFGE, the other 75 percent would be forced to be represented by a union. "That argument ignores the fact that, if that  percentage of employees votes for no labor organization, then no labor organization will be certified," the FLRA said.
For years, both unions have been campaigning to sign up TSOs. But although both unions now have TSO members, neither organization has been able to function as their exclusive representative.
And although AFGE and NTEU are opponents in the coming election, they agree on the need for union representation and collective bargaining for TSOs.
The FLRA decision, however, did not grant collective bargaining rights to the baggage screeners. That must be done administratively or legislatively. The unions are pursuing both routes.
"We will redouble our continuing efforts to win for TSA employees the right to bargain a contract before an election is concluded," Kelley said. "That will be the best path to significant improvements in their work lives."
Gage, citing employee surveys, said, "the morale of the TSO workforce is terrible as a result of favoritism, a lack of fair and respectful treatment from many managers, poor and unhealthy conditions in some airports, poor training and testing protocols and a poor pay system. . . . TSOs need a recognized union voice at work, and the important decision of the FLRA finally sets the process in motion to make that right a reality."
TSA had little reaction to the decision, saying only that it is being studied.
More civilian help?
With calls for freezing their pay and reducing the government's workforce, federal employees can find lots to worry about in last week's recommendations by the co-chairmen of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
There is one item, however, that actually would increase the number of federal workers, though not nearly enough to compensate for the cut of 200,000 federal positions by 2020 proposed by the chairmen.
Deep in their list of 58 recommendations, No. 53 calls for more federal civilian workers, but at the expense of those in the military.
The chairmen, Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, who served as White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, suggested replacing "military personnel performing commercial activities with civilians."
Commercial activities are such things as trash removal, fire prevention, certain communication services and recreational activities for the troops.
"This option eliminates 88,000 military personnel who are performing clearly commercial types of activities and replaces them with 62,000 civilians, at considerable per-employee savings," the chairmen's report said.
Why would it take 26,000 fewer civilians?
"One-third of the military positions can be eliminated during the conversion because civilians are not required to carry out military specific duties on top of their commercial duties," the report explained.
Simpson and Bowles estimated the savings would be $5.4 billion by 2015.