By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 8:39 PM
At a time when basic public employee union activities in state governments are under attack, Uncle Sam is staging what labor leaders say is the largest federal union organizing effort in history.
In contrast to Wisconsin and Ohio, where conservative politicians want to strip labor organizations of certain collective bargaining rights, 44,000 federal transportation security officers will be able to vote to choose a union, or no union, during a six-week period beginning Wednesday.
"It certainly is a contrast, and I'm very proud of the Obama administration for standing up and granting collective bargaining rights to TSOs, especially in the face of this outrageous attack on public employees that's going on in Wisconsin and Ohio," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. He spoke by phone from the Minneapolis airport, where he met with potential union members. "I just wish the American public would sit in some of the discussions we're having with TSOs and hear their frustrations and how they feel unions will make their working life better and contribute to the security of the airports."
TSOs are fired up.
"We are sleeping and breathing the election," said Kimberly Kraynak-Lambert, president of an AFGE local at Pittsburgh International Airport. "People are excited about the fact that they are about to change history and have a real voice in the workplace."
But this change in history is not without opposition.
Last month, the Senate rejected, on a party-line vote, a Republican attempt to block the bargaining rights John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration, had granted less than two weeks earlier. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), sponsor of the legislation, argued that "union demands will undoubtedly make our transportation security more costly and less efficient."
Union leaders strongly rejected his claims. "Collective bargaining helps to develop fair, credible and transparent processes without interfering with management rights to accomplish agency missions," Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union , said in a letter to senators. "We can strengthen TSA by providing its workers with such processes and with a voice in the development of workplace quality standards that will make the traveling public even safer."
Pistole's decision permits limited bargaining at the national level only; no local bargaining at individual airports would be allowed. Topics that could be negotiated include shift bids, transfers and awards. Pistole said TSA would not negotiate security policies, proficiency testing, job qualifications or discipline standards. Other than postal workers, no federal employees negotiate over pay.
AFGE and NTEU, the two biggest federal unions, both want to represent the TSOs, and winning the election would provide a major boost to the victor. That would be particularly welcome during a period when the atmosphere for public workers, at state and federal levels, is far more hostile than it was just months ago.
AFGE is the bigger of the two, with about 250,000 federal employee members. It also is one of the fastest growing organizations in the AFL-CIO. It has support from sister unions, including those representing pilots and flight attendants who have participated in solidarity rallies at airports. AFGE claims 13,000 dues-paying TSOs, plus 7,000 who have signed AFGE interest cards.
NTEU is has just under 90,000 members, according to Kelley, but it too is mounting a vigorous effort to represent the officers. She said about 20,000 TSOs are aligned with NTEU, which could mean anything from paying dues to simply providing personal contact information to the union.
NTEU has a victory to build upon. In the last head-to-head contest between the two unions, NTEU easily won a 2006 vote to represent 20,000 Customs and Border Protection employees. AFGE objected to the conduct of the election, and the appeal took nearly a year to resolve.
Kelley said any objections would be resolved much more quickly this time. "There is a much shorter process that has been agreed to" by the unions and the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which is conducting the election, she said. "Appeals can go only to the regional director and not to the full FLRA," as was the case in the CPB vote.
This year's vote also will differ in method.
The FLRA traditionally conducted elections on-site at federal facilities or by mail. In late 2009, the FLRA's Office of General Counsel began researching the practicality of using the Internet and the telephone for voting.
"The OGC was looking for a process that would maintain the secrecy of the ballot, possessed necessary safeguards and was reliable and convenient for voters," Julia Akins Clark, the FLRA's general counsel, said last year. Telephone and on-line voting provided that.
FLRA said eligible voters are sent a unique identification number and information casting a ballot by Internet or phone. One advantage is that participants can vote at any time, day or night.
However the election is conducted, "this is huge," said Kraynak-Lambert.