The Perfect Union

Rival groups are wooing TSA screeners in the largest federal labor organizing campaign in history.

On the administration's list of priorities, the Transportation Security Administration hasn't exactly come out on top. It took until September 2009 for President Obama to nominate an administrator for the embattled agency, Erroll G. Southers, only to see him withdraw in January. After arriving at the Homeland Security Department, TSA's parent agency, Secretary Janet Napolitano said she would examine whether she had the power to grant collective bargaining rights to Transportation Security officers. But she never moved on the issue. And Republican lawmakers have slammed the agency for checkpoint incidents ranging from screeners playing practical jokes to asking a disabled boy to remove his leg braces.

In the midst of this uncertainty and bad news, the two biggest federal employee unions are preparing to battle for exclusive representation of TSA's workforce. As the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union ramp up the largest union organizing campaign in the federal government's history, they are relying on platforms developed over many years and many competitions to convince TSA workers that they are best prepared to fight for the agency's future.

Growing Pains

Created by Congress in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the Transportation Security Administration set out to tighten passenger screening at the nation's airports. TSA became a prospect for union organizers for a variety of reasons.

"It's an agency that's still finding its way, still feeling its way in," says Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. "When you're dealing with an organization that's not in a steady state, those opportunities on the margin are even more important. [TSA is] not only young but in a highly challenging environment."

The agency's first challenge was to federalize-and professionalize-a wage-grade private security workforce. In a highly unusual move, Congress gave the agency chief the right to determine whether or not to give workers the union rights afforded most other federal employees. And similar to the Bush administration's actions at other agencies, TSA instituted a pay-for-performance system as an alternative to the General Schedule and suspended employees' rights to collective bargaining.

In addition, TSA was facing the same growing pains that any new agency would, magnified by intense concerns about aviation security.

Those circumstances-and the 40,000 rank-and-file Transportation Security officers who would represent a major addition to any union's ranks-presented an opportunity for AFGE and NTEU to make a case for changing the policy on collective bargaining for TSA officers.

In 2003, AFGE filed a petition asking for a union election at TSA. The Federal Labor Relations Authority rejected the petition, saying it lacked jurisdiction over the issues surrounding unionization at TSA.

But that decision did not stop AFGE and NTEU from organizing local union chapters at the more than 400 airports nationwide. And as the unions have stepped up their campaigns, they've relied on very different messages and tactics.

To Each His Own

The unions are making "the same arguments each side has made since, oh my goodness, since the early seventies. . . . If you were to pick up a piece from our campaign literature dated 1975, you would see those same arguments," says Robert Tobias, a former NTEU president and director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University. "There's nobody conducting polls to know the impact of the arguments."

At the center of AFGE's pitch is its size and its affiliation with the AFL-CIO. The union represents 600,000 federal and District of Columbia government workers, and says it already has 12,000 dues-paying members at TSA.

"When it comes to a union, bigger is better," says John Gage, AFGE's president. "We're trying to show them that the whole labor movement is concerned with their situation."

In their approach to organizing the security agency, AFGE has worked closely with its affiliates in the AFL-CIO. Gage says the organization's central labor councils and state-level labor federations all have been assigned roles in the campaign. They have helped organize rallies at more than 30 major airports, where union members in aviation professions-such as flight attendants, pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers-have met with screeners. Now they are focusing on smaller airports. And AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has addressed the issue of TSA collective bargaining in meetings with the White House.

By contrast, NTEU, which says it also has organized 12,000 TSA employees, has emphasized its status as an independent union, unaffiliated with either of the major labor federations.

"One of the reasons we take pride in the fact that we are an independent union, is we are not AFL-CIO affiliated, we don't have to turn part of members' dues over to a federation, we don't advocate for issues that are not germane to the day-to-day issues of the members," says James Bailey, NTEU's director of field operations and organizing. "I think law enforcement officials like that."

Anthony Hutchinson, a steward at NTEU's local at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, was a member of AFGE, but joined NTEU because he liked the union's approach to organizing and working on management issues. He tries to reach out to members of both unions as a liaison to the federal security director, who oversees TSA operations at the airport.

NTEU is relying on its seven field offices to support its organizing efforts and its new TSA members. Without collective bargaining rights, neither NTEU nor AFGE can negotiate working conditions or other issues Transportation Security officers face as a group. But the unions can represent individual employees in grievance and disciplinary proceedings.

"Once we have the support there for a structure in place, and once we charter a chapter, we are doing anything and everything we can to represent them," says NTEU President Colleen Kelley. "This is not just about signing employees up who say they're interested, and getting on an airplane and leaving."

While NTEU's attorneys in the field offices represent screeners in proceedings, AFGE has hired 10 lawyers to help its TSA members. And while AFGE does not maintain offices outside Washington, locals are stepping up to facilitate efforts to organize TSA workers who do not live in metropolitan areas or work at major airports.

Both unions have hired organizers to sign up TSA employees as members in preparation for a nationwide election. NTEU officials say they brought on "tens" of new employees to supplement "dozens" of existing staff working on the organizing campaign. Gage says his union hired 35 organizers specifically for the TSA campaign and posted job listings to hire 30 more.

Past Rivals

AFGE and NTEU have clashed before, with similar stakes in a recent election campaign. In 2006, employees at the fledgling Customs and Border Protection bureau voted to determine which union would represent them. The election included staffers who moved to CBP from the Agriculture Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Customs Service.

Customs and Border Protection, created in 2003, presented many of the same challenges as TSA. The employees are law enforcement officers who work at hundreds of entry points across the country, and who were adjusting to their new home at the Homeland Security Department. They frequently work on the restricted side of security checkpoints, or right in the middle of the action, making access difficult for organizers. And the election was similar in scope: 18,000 members were at stake.

NTEU won the election by a margin of 2-to-1, becoming the sole union representing CBP employees.

Bailey says the campaign taught the union important lessons about such a large and decentralized campaign.

"You need to have supporters in each location. You learn to . . . explain to people why a union is better than no union, and your union is better than the other union," he says. "You learn you have to demonstrate and prove that in terms of the job site representation you provide."

But those results shouldn't be seen as a sign that NTEU is going to emerge victorious at TSA, Gage says. This campaign involves an entirely new agency, and is targeting workers who did not previously belong to any federal union, he notes. CBP was patched together from groups of employees who had been in government for quite some time, and who already belonged to both unions. NTEU represented more of those employees previously, so "it was a tough uphill battle for us there" to win, Gage says.

Kelley says the CBP victory gave her union a unique chance to reach out to Transportation Security officers.

CBP employees "work at airports with those TSOs every day," Kelley says. "They see the difference we make in their working life, and they want us to bring that to the TSA workforce. I know they talk to the Customs and Border Protection officers a lot. The TSA workforce seeks out the CBP employees and asks them what their experience has been with NTEU. That campaign, and NTEU's win in that campaign, speaks a lot to our reputation on the ground in those kinds of jobs and in those kinds of environments."

Diagnosis for Change

Who will win TSA, and even the timing of an election, remains up in the air. Gage is confident the Federal Labor Relations Authority will reverse its 2003 decision now that Carol Waller Pope is its chairwoman. She had written a dissenting opinion on the panel's decision to reject AFGE's election request. Gage predicts an election could be complete by the end of the summer. Kelley is less willing to speculate. She initially called AFGE's request for an election premature, but now says her union is ready to compete and win.

Whatever the result, both unions hope for the same changes at TSA: the confirmation of a new administrator, passage of legislation that would make collective bargaining rights permanent, and a policy shift that would allow TSA to join the pay and personnel systems that govern much of the rest of government. Even if they disagree on who is best equipped to fight for those changes, AFGE and NTEU share a diagnosis of the agency's ills.

"One thing TSA teaches TSOs: It's supposed to be an ever-changing environment," says Hutchinson. "But TSA has yet to change."

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