Contest to organize airport screeners heats up

The American Federation of Government Employees on Tuesday announced progress on its petition to hold a unionization election at the Transportation Security Administration. But the rival National Treasury Employees Union remains close behind AFGE in the race to represent airport screeners exclusively, according to its leader.

AFGE on Feb. 22 filed a petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority for an agencywide election at TSA, saying it had enrolled 12,000 of 40,000 nonsupervisory TSA workers as members. Kelley said on Tuesday that NTEU also had gathered 12,000 membership applications or signed union cards indicating TSA workers wanted to organize with NTEU. She added her union would file its own petition for a national election soon, though she declined to give a date. Unions must demonstrate that they have organized 30 percent of an agency's workforce before they can petition for an election to become its sole union.

"This is a critical issue, not just for Transportation Security officers, but for every federal employee," said NTEU President Colleen Kelley, during the opening session of the union's three-day legislative conference in Washington. "We cannot let the TSA workforce continue to go unrepresented, and I know NTEU will provide the best possible representation, unmatched by any other union, without question."

In response to AFGE's petition, FLRA has asked the Transportation Security Administration to provide a list of employees to verify their names against the union's membership lists. FLRA also asked AFGE to state its position on the unionization campaign, and to post notices in airports nationwide informing employees that an election petition has been filed. AFGE President John Gage praised FLRA's rapid response to the petition.

"The process of determining who TSOs want to bargain their contract is one that the FLRA takes very seriously," he said in a statement. "We are confident that an election will take place very soon."

But FLRA spokeswoman Sarah Spooner said her agency's actions were a routine first step in processing a petition, and "no decision has been made with respect to the merits of the petition."

AFGE had filed a petition for an election in 2003, but FLRA rejected it, saying TSA, which is not covered by the Title 5 civil service rules that govern most federal agencies, was outside FLRA's jurisdiction. Carol Waller Pope, now the chairwoman of FLRA, disagreed with that decision, but it is not clear if the agency will reverse its ruling.

The two unions have taken different positions on the question of whether to try to hold an agencywide election at TSA before its employees are guaranteed the right to bargain collectively, whether through legislation, an executive order, or a decision by the TSA administrator, who under current law has the authority to extend or deny collective bargaining rights to the workforce. NTEU previously said the question of collective bargaining rights should be decided first, while AFGE maintains it makes more sense to start by determining representation.

"By settling the question of representation first, AFGE will be ready to begin negotiations as soon as the bargaining rights are established," the union wrote in its petition to FLRA.

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