TSA screeners press for union representation

Transportation Security Administration security screeners say they need union representation to improve the agency's troubled workplace conditions.

"I can see no way that airport screeners will ever be able to adequately protect the flying public, and the people of the United States, unless we have a say in the working conditions and safety procedures that shape our jobs," said Les Marzke, a lead passenger screener at Orlando International Airport in Florida. Marke, a veteran and Navy reservist who said he spent months trying to get the agency to recognize his veterans' preference status, joined two other screeners Monday during a press conference called to highlight the need for collective bargaining at the agency.

"I can blow the whistle until my face turns blue, but it won't make a bit of difference until we have the voice to make these changes," Markze said. The screeners alleged that an atmosphere of retaliation and favoritism at TSA has created low morale among employees.

TSA officials dismissed the numerous claims of intimidation, cronyism and retribution, according to an April 6 report in The Denver Post, and said they periodically poll employees anonymously to gauge employee morale.

In January, TSA Administrator James Loy said federal baggage and passenger screeners could join unions, but he would not bargain with employee unions. In the months following his announcement Loy has implemented a "model work group" structure, through which employees can voice their concerns and, ultimately "focus on job No. 1, which is providing the highest level of security," an agency spokesman said in March. The agency has also brought on an ombudsman to help deal with various workplace issues.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, has filed several petitions with the Federal Labor Relations Authority asking permission to represent TSA employees. A decision on the petitions is pending, but AFGE President Bobby Harnage said Monday that regardless of FLRA's ruling, the union would still represent TSA's screeners.

"We want to represent these employees formally; I'm not interested in being 'deep throat' for Admiral Loy," Harnage said. "But whether or not we ever get formal recognition as a union, we're going to be representing these employees. If we can't come to the table and bargain, we'll represent them in court."

According to Harnage more than 6,000 screeners have signed petitions circulated at the nation's airports expressing interest in the union.

"A lot of screeners have their fingers crossed for this new organization," said Alfunzo Staley. Staley, a former passenger screener at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, was laid off during the agency's recent downsizing effort after spending many troubled months trying to get veterans' preference status and the management job he said recruiters initially promised him.

On Friday the agency announced that it would add screeners at some of the nation's airports after re-evaluating the number of screeners needed at each airport to handle passenger screening. In March, Loy said the agency would eliminate as many as 6,000 security screener jobs by Sept. 30, trimming TSA's staffing levels to the 48,000 employees authorized by Congress in legislation creating the agency. According to TSA officials, the first 3,000 employees were gone by May 31.

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