After years of union employees of the Transportation Security Administration working on representational issues in their free time and lacking access to independent bodies that resolve disputes, a new bill would provide them with the rights already afforded to the vast majority of the federal workforce.
House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., introduced the Rights for Transportation Security Officers Act (H.R. 1140) on Tuesday, which would grant TSA employees full Title 5 civil service protections, including access to the Merit Systems Protection Board, official time for representational work and the General Schedule wage system.
When the agency was founded following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress gave the TSA administrator broad discretion in workforce management, including in hiring, compensation and performance management. It was not until 2011 that employees at the agency were granted limited access to union representation, and to this day they still do not have the same due process rights afforded most other federal civilian workers.
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In recent years, TSA employees who serve as union officials with the American Federation of Government Employees have described essentially working two full-time jobs. Without access to official time, the practice by which union employees are paid by their agencies for representational duties like contract negotiations and work on grievances, they must find the time to serve the bargaining unit while off-duty.
AFGE National President J. David Cox said that despite the limitations on union representation at the agency, conditions at TSA have improved since 2011.
“We’ve been able to increase union allowances, and we’ve certainly done things to increase pay,” Cox said. “A year or so ago, when officials were expecting long lines at airports, that didn’t materialize because workers stepped up and [using the labor-management relationship they] offered ideas to mitigate it, and the administration moved pay bands . . . and other bonuses.”
Lowey and Thompson have introduced similar legislation in previous sessions of Congress. But Cox said he and other officials are newly hopeful that the bill could gain traction now that the House is under Democratic control.
“Chairman Thompson clearly told us he would introduce the bill, and Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi has been giving indications that they will move forward with [the bill],” Cox told reporters Monday. “That legislation will move very quickly through the House. And although it still has to go through the Senate, we’re seeing legislation go through the House every day, and the Senate will have to act on it sooner or later.”
The push to expand federal employees' collective bargaining rights is not limited to TSA. Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate are also looking to give doctors, nurses and other health providers at the Veterans Affairs Department collective bargaining rights, introducing a bill to allow them to negotiate compensation and staffing levels.
Since 1991, VA’s medical professionals have been prohibited from bargaining over professional conduct or competence, peer-review, or changes to employee compensation. And last year, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie expanded the definition of what qualified as impacting “direct patient care” to strip union medical personnel of the ability to use official time.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and author of the VA Employee Fairness Act (H.R. 1133) in the lower chamber, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, noted VA maintains 40,000 vacancies and said their bill would help address that.
“There’s no doubt we have to create a better environment for attracting and retaining physicians, nurses, other health care workers, by restoring collective bargaining rights of medical professionals at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Takano told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s amazing to me that such a significant group of VA employees has no collective bargaining rights.”
The House chairman said many of the department’s vacancies exist “because VA cannot offer competitive compensation,” and creating “more competitive salaries” would boost recruiting efforts. Takano and Brown have previously sponsored similar legislation, but with Democrats now controlling the House it has much higher odds of advancing out of at least one chamber.
Eric Katz contributed to this report.