By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 10:08 PM
The Obama administration has decided to allow limited collective bargaining rights for transportation security officers.
The decision by the Transportation Security Administration marks an important, if not complete, victory for the two largest federal employee unions that have long pushed for the ability to negotiate on behalf of the workers. Those unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, are competing in an election campaign to win the support of about 45,000 officers who screen airline passengers and baggage.
The election is being closely watched by the wider organized labor movement because the officers are the largest group of workers now engaged in a union organizing effort in the country.
"The safety of the traveling public is our top priority, and we will not negotiate on security," said John Pistole, the TSA administrator, who made the decision. "But morale and employee engagement cannot be separated from achieving superior security."
Pistole's decision excludes bargaining on any issue that TSA considers security related, including security procedures and the deployment of security personnel and equipment. Also excluded from bargaining are compensation, testing, job qualifications and discipline standards.
"Now many issues will be up for negotiations, including seniority, shift biddings, transfers and awards," AFGE President John Gage said. "I can guarantee that after AFGE negotiates a contract, TSA will not rank anywhere near the bottom of the Best Places to Work survey, as it currently does at 220 out of 224 federal agencies."
Republicans have argued that airport screeners should not be allowed to unionize and bargain collectively. Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, blasted Pistole's decision as a "turnover of airport screening to the administration's union cronies."
But Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the performance of other federal security officers who are unionized proves "collective bargaining does not diminish our security - it can actually enhance workforce productivity and TSA's mission."
Security officers had already been granted the right to vote for a union by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Now they will vote with the certainty that the union they choose will have the right to collectively negotiate for them. TSA said "no union" also will be a choice. More than 13,000 transportation security officers are members of the unions, which until now could provide only personal representation.
"This decision and the upcoming representation election at TSA will give these officers a voice in their workplace and a chance at a better future," NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley said. "The sooner NTEU is certified as the exclusive representative of the TSA workforce, the sooner we can begin improving the lives of employees at this key agency."
The election period has been tentatively scheduled for March 9 to April 19.