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2 unions vie for the right to represent airport screeners

TSA workers have been denied collective bargaining since the agency's inception. But the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union hope that changes.

December 13, 2009|By Patrick J. McDonnell

To James Kelly, the issue is simple: Better morale means improved safety.

"They tell us we're at the front line of airline security, but we don't feel we're treated that way," says Kelly, a transport security officer at Los Angeles International Airport and a member of the American Federation of Government Employees.

With holiday travel in full throttle, the public is coming into greater contact with Kelly and more than 40,000 airport screeners posted at X-ray machines, checkpoints and elsewhere in terminals nationwide. Though travelers grumble about lengthy security queues, no one disputes the significance of the screeners' task: Keeping air travel safe from terrorism and other threats.

But labor leaders say the officers suffer from low morale, inadequate pay, arbitrary work rules and high turnover -- factors that could ultimately reduce worker effectiveness and hamper airport safety.

Two big federal unions say there is a solution: collective bargaining rights, a benefit that has been denied the screeners since the Transportation Security Administration was created in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Screeners like Kelly can freely choose to be union members, but they are barred from collective bargaining.

Despite intense opposition from conservatives, the Obama administration is expected to make good on a campaign pledge to allow collective negotiations.

Largely unseen by the traveling public, two big unions, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, are engaged in a battle to woo screeners and win the right to represent this huge pool of federal officers. Each union argues that it is best suited to take up the cause of the screeners, whose salaries start at about $25,000.

The American Federation of Government Employees, backed by the AFL-CIO, plans a rally and march Thursday [ at LAX, where more than 2,000 screeners work, one of the largest contingents nationwide.

"Transportation security officers provide first-class security and deserve more than second-class rights," said Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

The two unions have been aggressively signing up members and opening chapters at airports coast to coast. Both unions have assisted screeners in disciplinary cases, grievances and other actions.

And, once collective bargaining is in place, both unions have vowed to push for overhaul of screeners' pay structure, promotion policies, scheduling and other contentious issues. Labor leaders pledge to put in place a system to counter the tedium that comes from constantly going through luggage and asking people to take off their shoes.

"There is absolutely zero reason for anyone to make a rational determination that these people aren't entitled to a voice at work," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, representing about 600,000 workers.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents about 150,000 employees, has presented a five-point plan to overhaul how screeners are paid, treated, trained and certified.

"Morale is very low, attrition is high and these employees are looking for a workplace where they are valued and respected," said Colleen M. Kelly, president of the union:

The issue has become intensely politicized in Washington.

Some Republicans argue that collective bargaining for officers charged with keeping terrorists off airplanes could jeopardize lives, preventing rapid response to threats.

"The safety and security of the American people is far too important to be controlled by union bosses," declared Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). "TSA needs to be nimble in responding to ever-changing threats."

The issue has prompted the South Carolina lawmaker to place a "hold" on Senate approval of the White House nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, Erroll G. Southers, a former FBI agent and Santa Monica police officer who is now an assistant chief of L.A. airport police. Southers has said he would not do anything to compromise airport security. But he has avoided giving a direct answer when asked if he would allow collective bargaining -- a non-response that DeMint calls a dodge.

Union leaders forcefully reject the argument that collective bargaining undermines security. They note that police officers and other law enforcement agencies, including customs and immigration officers stationed at airports, have long been unionized.

The American Federation of Government Employees' Gage calls DeMint's argument "deeply insulting," adding: "No one talked about union 'bosses' when police and firemen, union members, ran up the stairs of the World Trade Center." Kelly of the National Treasury Employees Union denounced the senator's "scare tactics."

Despite the hold on Southers' nomination, it is widely anticipated that screeners will soon win collective bargaining rights via administrative action or a new law.

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