National labor leaders back AFGE in effort to organize screeners

At a Washington rally on Tuesday, AFL-CIO unions called for extending collective bargaining rights to Transportation Security Administration employees, and said those employees should join the American Federation of Government Employees, one of two unions seeking to organize TSA workers.

AFGE, a member of the AFL-CIO, filed a petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority on Monday requesting an election to determine which union should represent the 40,000 rank-and-file transportation security officers who work for TSA. The National Treasury Employees Union, which is not affiliated with a labor federation, also has been organizing TSA workers into local chapters.

The AFL-CIO leaders who turned out at the rally did not mention NTEU, but they did show their support for AFGE.

"They [TSA screeners] know AFGE has gone to bat for them," said Elizabeth Shuler, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. "They know which union has been on their side."

NTEU has emphasized its status as a federal union, saying TSA workers' dues would go exclusively toward supporting its efforts on their behalf. The union also has touted its experience with law enforcement workers and the Homeland Security Department, where it represents Customs and Border Protection employees. NTEU's campaign to organize CBP was the largest unionization drive the federal government has ever experienced, though it will be eclipsed by the fight at TSA, where as many as 40,000 workers could choose to join a labor organization.

"NTEU is prepared to fight for and win a union election should the authority grant this petition," NTEU President Colleen Kelley said in a statement released on Monday. "Employees will have a choice about who their exclusive representative is, and we are prepared to make the case that we are the better choice."

Shuler and other AFL-CIO leaders, including executive vice president Arlene Holt Baker, have worked with AFGE to reach out to TSA employees at airports across the country.

Ricky McCoy, president of AFGE's TSA Local 777, said he was confident the union would win a national election.

"We're not even worried about the other guys," he said. "We're going to go back to the airport and do what we have to do."

Union leaders also had sharp words for the Obama administration. As a candidate for president, Obama promised to restore collective bargaining rights to TSA employees, and Janet Napolitano, his choice for Homeland Security secretary, said early in her tenure that she was looking into whether she had the authority to grant them those rights. When TSA was established in 2002, Congress gave the agency's administrator authority to extend or deny collective bargaining rights to the workforce. Neither Napolitano nor Obama have moved to extend those rights, and Obama's choice to head TSA withdrew his nomination in January.

"We're telling them to get the hell out of our way while we exercise our rights," said AFGE President John Gage. "Whether it's the Senate, DHS or the White House, get out of our way."

Lawmakers and labor leaders said that unionization could help solve TSA's management problems. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who is sponsoring legislation that would extend collective bargaining rights to TSA said, "We have to stop the brain drain" at the agency by examining its pay system, training programs and career paths.

National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi said a union would give TSA employees a forum for providing recommendations to the agency.

TSA employees are "the ones who will be able to tell them there are problems in the screening," Rinaldi said. "You're the ones who will be able to tell management that we need more staffing."

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