Senate approves collective bargaining for TSA screeners

Democrats held their ranks Wednesday and voted to give federal airport screeners collective bargaining rights, handing Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., another victory while managing a massive bill to implement unfulfilled recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

Senators voted 53-46 to defeat a Republican-backed amendment to the bill that would give Transportation Security Administration screeners more workplace protections but not collective bargaining rights. That amendment was offered by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, putting her in the rare position of being at odds with Lieberman.

Collins portrayed her amendment as a compromise to bridge differences over giving TSA screeners' collective bargaining rights and as a way to head off a White House veto.

But the House version of the bill, a high-priority measure that was the first measure passed by the new Democratic-led House in January, also extends collective bargaining rights to TSA screeners.

Collins said her amendment would "strike a balance between giving the employees all of the standard collective bargaining rights and the security needs of the TSA."

The Collins amendment would have allowed screeners to appeal adverse workplace actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board, and would have codified that screeners have whistleblower protections. But instead of giving screeners collective bargaining rights, the amendment called on TSA and the Government Accountability Office to each submit a report within one year "that contains an assessment of employment matters."

Collins has said this would give the government time to examine whether screeners should have collective bargaining rights. Instead, senators voted 51-48 in favor of an amendment from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to give screeners collective bargaining rights and whistleblower protections, with some limitations.

"This part of the federal government suffers from incredible turnover," said McCaskill, who presented her amendment as an alternative to Lieberman's stronger pro-union language. "It's inefficient, it's expensive and we're not getting the kind of experienced screeners that will know what to look for ... based on their experience."

Lieberman voted for her amendment, even though it had more stipulations than the language he inserted into the bill. "Employees shall not have the right to engage in a strike and the undersecretary may take whatever actions may be necessary to carry out the agency mission during emergencies, newly imminent threats, or intelligence indicating a newly imminent emergency risk," the amendment said.

McCaskill argued that Border Patrol agents and Capitol Police officers have collective bargaining rights while performing homeland security missions. Collins called Wednesday's votes "unfortunate," adding that a decision to keep collective bargaining language in the bill will bring a veto. "The votes we have just taken will set back" efforts to implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations, she said.

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