By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011;
Even before the nation's transportation security officers actually get to use their new collective-bargaining rights, Republicans on Capitol Hill are working to block them. The title of their legislation, "Termination of Collective Bargaining for Transportation Security Administration Employees Act of 2011," warns the officers that the struggle for collective bargaining didn't end with John Pistole's decision last week.
Pistole, the TSA administrator, granted security officers limited bargaining rights after what he called "my top to bottom review of TSA." That review took several months and resulted in a 21-page "Decision Memorandum," which carefully outlines the basis for his determination that officers can have a union negotiate for them.
But not for everything.
Page 6 of the memo makes this clear: "TSA will not bargain about security policies and procedures or issues affecting security."
Some Republican senators, however, don't seem to fully believe Pistole.
"TSA's announcement on Friday purports to preclude employees from bargaining over security policies and procedures," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement Monday. "But it does allow bargaining over the selection process for special assignments and on policies for transfers and shift trading - matters that could require rapid resolution during an emergency."
Collins questioned whether a TSA with collective bargaining could respond quickly as it has in past situations - including an airline-bombing plot that originated in Britain, a December 2006 blizzard in Denver and the 2008 hurricanes that hit Houston and New Orleans.
TSA said bargaining would have had no impact.
"The deployment of security personnel and the implementation of new procedures are explicitly excluded from bargaining in administrator Pistole's determination," said spokesman Nicholas Kimball, without taking a position on the legislation. "Administrator Pistole crafted his determination with such situations in mind and ensured TSA retains full authority to respond to evolving threats and protect national security. We retain the ability to add hours or days or make other changes to deployments based on operational requirements. We define those requirements and how we will meet them."
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, called the notion that collective bargaining would somehow hinder management's ability to respond to threats a "red herring" that "has been disproven time and time again."
Furthermore, Pistole believes that collective bargaining could enhance security by helping to improve employee engagement at TSA, where morale is notoriously low. "Employee engagement and security are interrelated, and therefore directly affect our capacity to effectively carry out our mission," Pistole's memo said. "We must assure that our TSOs are motivated and engaged as their judgment and discretionary effort are critical to achieving superior security."
Collins is a co-sponsor, with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), of the measure that would terminate collective bargaining. It is an amendment to legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration.
They might think that hitching it to the FAA bill could enhance the amendment's chances for passage, but the treasury union and American Federation of Government Employees don't seem too worried.
"We believe there is enough opposition to prevent the Wicker amendment from passing," Kelley said.
The two unions are campaigning to represent about 45,000 security officers who screen people and baggage at the nation's airports. An election is tentatively scheduled for March 9-April 19. No union will be an option.
Even if collective bargaining were blocked, the election could proceed. But choosing a union that can engage in collective bargaining is much more attractive than one that can only represent workers as individuals.
Although the labor organizations don't think the amendment will get through the Democratic-controlled Senate, they aren't taking anything for granted.
In a letter to senators Tuesday, Beth Moten, AFGE's legislative director, said, "The responders to the tragedy of 9/11 were among the most highly unionized of public sector personnel. . . . Suggestions that TSA workers would check with mythical 'union bosses' before performing their duties are terrible insults to the men and women who have prevented acts of transportation terrorism."
It's worth noting that other security personnel, including those in the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Capitol Police - but not the FBI - have collective bargaining.
Collins tried to make the amendment originally offered by Wicker a little more palatable by adding language that would ensure the security officers had whistle-blower protection rights, the right to unionize and the right to appeal major disciplinary actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board. But those carrots are not enough to make the amendment the least bit appetizing to advocates for security officers' bargaining rights.
"These provisions, though well intended, are entirely inadequate to address the myriad workplace concerns at TSA," Moten said, "and are no substitute for collective-bargaining rights."
A link to Pistole's "Decision Memorandum" is with this column at washingtonpost.com/fedpage.