Obama win reignites push to organize airport screeners

Democrat Barack Obama's victory in the presidential election on Tuesday has spurred federal labor unions to renew efforts to organize employees at the Transportation Security Administration.

Representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees and National Treasury Employees Union said that their top priority under the Obama administration will be to ensure collective bargaining rights for federal airport screeners. Both groups announced plans to immediately boost efforts to organize thousands of workers at the agency.

"We're going to step up real hard on TSA," said John Gage, president of AFGE, on Wednesday during a conference call with reporters. "Now with a real light at the end of the tunnel … we're looking to step out and provide [collective bargaining] rights and deliver a true voice at work for [transportation security officers]."

Gage said AFGE has hired about 35 business agents who will be responsible for setting up union locals at major airport hubs across the country. AFGE also has positioned its members in other federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection and the Defense Department, to help "get behind the rights of [TSA] workers."

The union has worked closely with Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., to get co-sponsors for legislation that would repeal a footnote in the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act -- the law that created TSA -- giving the agency's administrator free rein to "employ, appoint, discipline, terminate and fix the compensation, terms and conditions of employment" of workers.

In addition, AFGE and NTEU officials said they would push for legislation that would extend collective bargaining rights to the TSA workforce. "This is [an] ongoing [effort]," said NTEU President Colleen Kelley. "But now, with a new administration and a new Congress, I think the chances of it [succeeding] are much higher than they were yesterday."

In 2007, federal unions came close to securing collective bargaining rights for TSA workers in major homeland security legislation. But Senate Democrats stripped the language from the bill after President Bush threatened to veto it, citing the collective bargaining provision.

Until legislation allowing TSA employees to organize is passed, AFGE said it would urge the next TSA administrator to support bargaining authority, noting that such rights would help airport screeners to better serve the public because they would be compensated properly, well-trained and treated fairly.

In an Oct. 20 letter to Gage, Obama said he would work with federal unions to ensure TSA workers have such protections. He noted that because collective bargaining agreements provide a structure for addressing issues such as promotions, overtime, health and safety, and child care, such agreements could improve the performance and retention of transportation security officers.

"It is unacceptable for TSOs to work under unfair rules and without workplace protections -- this makes it more difficult for them to perform their jobs," Obama wrote.

Obama also pledged to re-examine TSA's pay for performance system -- the Performance Accountability and Standards System -- to determine whether it meets minimum requirements for fairness, transparency and accountability. "If it does not," he said, "we should replace it with the General Schedule wage system used by the rest of federal government, including other agencies in the Department of Homeland Security."

In addition, Obama noted plans to ensure that TSA is held to the same contracting rules as other federal agencies, pointing to a $1.2 billion human resources contract TSA awarded earlier this year to Lockheed Martin Corp. He argued that the contract was awarded "without regard to the rules that require them to allow current TSA employees to compete for that work."

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