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Senate votes for right to bargain by screeners

But the provision may doom the anti-terrorism legislation to a veto.

March 07, 2007|Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Tuesday to allow airport baggage and passenger screeners the same rights to negotiate working conditions that other employees of the Department of Homeland Security -- including Border Patrol and Customs agents -- now have.

But Democrats did not appear to have the two-thirds majority they would need to override the veto the White House has threatened if the collective bargaining provision remains in the bill.

By a 51-46 vote, the Senate kept the bargaining provision for screeners in broad anti-terrorism legislation that has already passed the House. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was the only Republican to cross party lines, joining 48 Democrats -- including California's Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein -- and two independents in voting to not to strike the provision from the bill.

The other 46 Republicans present voted no; two Republicans and one Democrat were absent.

The vote represented a big, if temporary, victory for organized labor. Although they cannot negotiate salaries, unions for federal employees can generally bargain with the government over such conditions as work hours and grievance procedures.

The law establishing the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 specifically left out collective bargaining rights for airport screeners, who were moving from private companies to federal employment with the creation of the Transportation Security Administration.

The rationale for that decision, as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) explained Tuesday, was to give the TSA the flexibility to put screeners where they were most needed to combat terrorism. DeMint had introduced the amendment to strike the collective bargaining provision that was voted on Tuesday.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) proposed a compromise that she hoped would clear Congress and meet with President Bush's approval. It would allow workers whistle-blower protections and the right to appeal adverse personnel decisions, although working conditions would remain the TSA's prerogative.

"It's not an all-or-nothing debate," said Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which wrote the bill.

There was no immediate vote on Collins' proposal.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a leading proponent of the collective bargaining provision, said it would be unfair to deny more than 42,000 screeners the rights enjoyed by most other federal workers. "If we want screeners to protect our rights," Brown said, "we must protect their rights."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the bill a concession to organized labor. "America's security should not be on the bargaining table," he said.

The House version of the bill, which would implement virtually all of the remaining recommendations of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, was the first that the House's new Democratic leadership took to the floor after 12 years of GOP control. It contains a provision on collective bargaining rights that is much like the one in the Senate bill.

The House passed its bill by a veto-proof majority of 299 to 128.

A separate battle broke out over the formula for distributing federal domestic security grants to the states. The bill before the Senate would award larger shares of the grant money based on the likelihood of a terrorist strike, rather than by state population.

It also would require the government to screen all cargo on passenger planes within three years and make the states' systems of first responses to terrorist attacks consistent with each other.

Senate leaders hope for a final vote on the bill by the end of the week.

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