Unions demand federal, organized screening workforce

Airline industry union representatives demanded Monday that the government maintain a federalized screening workforce with collective bargaining rights at the nation's airports, saying anything less would jeopardize aviation security.

Union representatives for pilots, flight attendants, customer service agents and airline technicians held a press conference to mark the one-year anniversary of using a federalized workforce for passenger and baggage screening across the country. They said progress has been made in securing air travel but they blasted the Transportation Security Administration for not allowing screeners to form unions and threatened to go to the Supreme Court to win union representation.

"We're going to go to the Supreme Court if we have to because we believe it's a constitutional issue for workers to be able to freely associate and to be able to form unions," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

Gage cited an Oct. 20 poll by Zogby International in which 69 percent of respondents said they feel safer knowing the government has a trained, professional workforce providing security at the country's airports. Only 5 percent said they feel less safe.

Federal screeners began operating at airports in place of private companies and contract employees in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, TSA Administrator James Loy in January issued an order preventing federal screeners from forming unions, saying such a move might threaten national security.

"It is highly offensive that the administration puts up a smoke screen of national security to deny collective bargaining rights," said Ed Wytkind, executive director of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, at the press conference.

Congress ordered all but five of the nation's airports to use TSA screeners until at least November 2004. Starting then, airport directors can apply to TSA for permission to hire screeners from private companies again.

The five airports that Congress exempted from using federal screeners are part of a pilot program to examine the performance and effectiveness of a private screening workforce. TSA is currently doing an evaluation of the federal and private screening programs to present airport directors with information before November 2004.

Union representatives said returning to private contractors would be unacceptable and dangerous. Gage also said he does not believe federal screeners will be adequately represented in TSA's evaluation because they do not have a union to speak for them.

The five airports in the pilot program are located in San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo.; Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo, Miss.; and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Mike McCarron, a spokesman for San Francisco International Airport, said in an interview last week that his airport is pleased with private screeners and most likely will choose to continue having a private workforce when given the option. He explained that the airport has not had any problems with the performance, service or detection abilities of its private screeners.

He said a private screening workforce offers more flexibility in hiring and is less cumbersome than dealing with federal workforce rules. TSA is responsible for hiring and managing the private screeners, so the airport does not bear that responsibility.

However, Tom Kinton, director of aviation for Boston's Logan International Airport, said he is sold on having a federal screening workforce.

"We supported federalization of the security checkpoints from day one," he said. "We're not even considering dropping out of the federal program. I'm 110 percent behind the federal workforce."

He said privatizing the screening workforce would be a haphazard process that would set the screening program backward and dilute the effectiveness of having one government agency in charge of management and training.

He said airports might be tempted to have a private screening workforce because they believe it offers more staffing flexibility. But he said he believes airports and TSA can resolve any staffing problems within the federal workforce.

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