The House passed a bill Tuesday evening that contains language granting 56,000 baggage screeners in the Transportation Security Administration the right to bargain collectively.
The provision is folded into Democrats' broader bill to enact leftover recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. It would repeal an authority granted in the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act giving the TSA chief the ability to reject collective bargaining.
Then-TSA Administrator James Loy exercised that authority in 2003, prohibiting bargaining because of screeners' role in national security.
In a statement of administration policy, White House officials said Tuesday that they strongly oppose a rule change because bargaining rights would hinder TSA's ability to quickly react to terrorist threats. As an example, officials pointed to the foiled United Kingdom airline bombing plot in August, when new procedures for screeners were put into place immediately.
"This flexibility is a key component of how the Department of Homeland Security, through TSA, protects Americans while they travel," the statement said.
A spokeswoman for TSA said the agency would not comment on ongoing legislation.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union, representing about 600,000 employees, has been organizing TSA screeners in spite of the agency's refusal to bargain. AFGE has gone to court several times to push for TSA bargaining rights. In 2004, the Federal Labor Relations Authority refused the union's petitions, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to decide the case.
In November, the United Nations' International Labor Office issued an unenforceable opinion in AFGE's favor.
Kimberly Kraynak, a TSA lead security officer in Pittsburgh and women's coordinator for AFGE Local 1, asked the labor movement at large for support while speaking at an AFL-CIO conference in Washington last month.
"We are hopeful that the new Congress will restore our collective bargaining rights so we can begin exercising our voice at work and building a more secure and prosperous future for TSA workers across the country," she said in her speech.
"TSA will no longer be allowed to deny its workers basic labor rights," AFGE President John Gage said. "TSA has subjected its employees to discrimination, retaliation, adverse actions, mandatory overtime and fear of coming forth to report problems. It's time to put an end to TSA's bullying."
The Senate still needs to approve the measure, which President Bush would have to sign. A spokeswoman for Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., told The Washington Post that the senator, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, supports collective bargaining for TSA employees.