Lawmakers take stand against new TSA bargaining privileges

‘Middle ground’ language would offer employees appeal rights and whistleblower protections, but not the ability to bargain collectively.

Republican lawmakers are proposing to grant Transportation Security Administration employees limited workplace protections while blocking collective bargaining privileges.

Just days after TSA Administrator John Pistole gave airport screeners limited bargaining rights, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., have co-signed legislation prohibiting employees from receiving those privileges. Introduced on Feb. 2 by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the amendment to Federal Aviation Administration authorization legislation would prevent more than 40,000 TSA workers from being granted collective bargaining rights. It also would strip those rights from more than 10,000 additional TSA employees in nonscreener positions who currently have them.

Lawmakers on Monday modified the amendment to grant TSA workers additional workplace rights but stopped short of collective bargaining. If approved, the legislation would bring employees under the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, permit them to join a union and allow independent appeals of adverse personnel actions such as removals, suspensions for more than 14 days, reductions in pay or grade, or certain furloughs.

According to Collins, the modifications create a "middle ground" where workers will have additional rights, without posing a threat to national security.

"We can provide TSA employees with important protections enjoyed by other federal employees, such as the right to appeal adverse employment actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board and the statutory right to whistleblower protections without disrupting TSA's proven personnel system that has served the agency and this nation well over the past decade," Collins said in a speech on the Senate floor. "We simply have to allow the TSA administrator to retain exactly the same kinds of flexibility to deploy personnel that he enjoys now and that have been used in the past."

Created in 2001, TSA was excluded from federal regulations giving workers bargaining privileges. Agency leaders have the authority to grant those rights but before now, chose not to act. Pistole for months reviewed a proposal to let employees bargain collectively and on Feb. 4 determined they will be able to negotiate over performance management, awards and attendance management guidelines processes, along with shift bids. Transportation security officers will not be able to bargain over security policies, 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.

In a Feb. 7 letter to Senate lawmakers, National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley called the modified amendment "ill-advised," noting collective bargaining would not prevent Pistole from acting quickly in an emergency. TSA employees, like other federal workers, must follow civil service rules that prohibit labor strikes and allow managers to move employees to different areas during a crisis, she said.

NTEU and the American Federation of Government Employees are vying for exclusive representation of TSOs. An election is tentatively set to begin March 9.

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