Rights and Risk

Security concerns loom as airport screeners enter a new era of collective bargaining.

Now that the Transportation Security Administration's airport screeners have been granted some collective bargaining rights, TSA Administrator John Pistole faces long-standing concerns that by exercising such rights, employees could jeopardize national security. But union leaders point to the success of bargaining processes at other federal law enforcement agencies.

Others involved in national security efforts, including those at Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Coast Guard, have statutory coverage and are afforded the same protections and rights to organize and bargain collectively as other federal workers. Created in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, TSA was excluded from the regulations giving workers bargaining privileges.

TSA administrators have always had the authority to grant those rights, but did not extend them to screeners until this spring. About 10,000 nonscreener employees already have them. Adm. James Loy, TSA's second administrator from 2002 to 2003, blocked workers' attempts to unionize and bargain, saying such privileges would threaten national security.

"Mandatory collective bargaining is not compatible with the flexibility required to wage the war against terrorism," Loy said at the time. "Fighting terrorism demands a flexible workforce that can rapidly respond to threats. That can mean changes in work assignments and other conditions of employment that are not compatible with the duty to bargain with labor unions."

Lawmakers also put up a fight. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., sponsored an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration authorization that would have prevented 40,000 TSA workers from being granted bargaining rights. The proposal, which was defeated, also would have stripped those privileges from workers who already had them. Several other lawmakers co-signed the legislation just days after Pistole's decision. On the House side, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, requested information from the agency about Pistole's determination, noting bargaining rights could force TSA to seek union approval before making critical security decisions.

Pistole assured lawmakers in February that he determines which issues are negotiable and employees cannot appeal such decisions. Employees will be able to bargain over performance management processes, awards and attendance guidelines, along with shift bids. They will not be able to negotiate security policies and procedures, or the deployment of security personnel and equipment; pay, pensions and compensation; proficiency testing; job qualifications; and discipline standards. Talks will occur only at the national level.

Federal employees generally cannot bargain over an agency's internal security procedures, says Cathie McQuiston, deputy membership director of the American Federation of Government Employees, one of two unions seeking exclusive representation of TSA workers in an election this spring. "When TSA says that, it's not special and not any different from anyone else," she says. "There really is no heightened danger or specialness about TSA or the work of the agency that justifies their exclusion from the full range of rights."

According to Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, collective bargaining works at other law enforcement agencies because transparent and fair processes improve employee morale, and in turn, operations.

"It's not just important to employees from a work-life perspective, but also to make the agency more efficient," says Kelley. "When you have employees who are looking for the opportunity for promotions, it should be fair and competitive. That's what this does. It has nothing to do with national security."

Employees with bargaining rights still have to play by the rules. According to Pistole, workers do not have strike rights and could be fired en masse for work stoppages. If employees have concerns, they can turn to the existing grievance processes. Workers are encouraged to raise issues with their supervisors, he says, and will have the opportunity for a hearing if a union is elected. "In other agencies, [there are] disputes and grievances if employees don't think they had a fair process," says Kelley. "There are processes to resolve this. In the meantime the work still gets done. Nothing stops."

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