Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said it will be harder for TSA to fulfill its mission without its existing latitude.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said it will be harder for TSA to fulfill its mission without its existing latitude. Alex Brandon / AP

House Passes Bill Granting TSA Employees Full Workers Rights

The Rights for Transportation Security Officers Act would bring the Transportation Security Administration workforce under Title 5 of the U.S. Code, granting them access to the General Schedule pay system and a slew of other rights and protections.

The House on Thursday voted 230-171 to pass a bill that would grant employees of the Transportation Security Administration the rights and protections enjoyed by the vast majority of the federal workforce.

When Congress first established the TSA following the September 11, 2001 attacks, it exempted the agency from Title 5 of the U.S. Code, giving it broad latitude to determine employees’ pay and benefits, as well as to discipline and fire workers. Employees at TSA were not allowed to unionize until 2011, and even now have only abridged collective bargaining rights when compared with the rest of the federal workforce.

The Rights for Transportation Security Officers Act (H.R. 1140), introduced by Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., would grant Title 5 rights to all TSA employees. The bill would provide workers with the full collective bargaining rights, due process and whistleblower protections, and would tie pay to the General Schedule.

During debate on the bill Wednesday, Thompson said that although Congress intended to provide TSA the authority to make its own personnel system so that it could be flexible in the face of evolving threats, that is not what has happened.

“The modern, nimble system Congress envisioned was never realized,” he said. “Instead, transportation security officers are subject to an antiquated system that does not provide appropriate pay, regular salary increases or basic civil service protections. Further, an employee subject to a disciplinary action does not have the right to appeal to an independent third party such as the Merit Systems Protections Board . . . According to a former TSA deputy administrator, that lack of a due process protection has bred a culture of retribution and arbitrary personnel practices, leading to misbehavior and a reluctance to report security vulnerabilities.”

But Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said it will be harder for TSA to fulfill its mission without its existing latitude.

“In order for TSA to successfully carry out its mission, with its unique operational needs, we gave TSA one-of-a-kind authorities to respond to evolving threats,” he said. “TSA has used that over time to remain flexible . . . because each airport has its own unique threat landscape.”

Rogers also objected to the bill “dictating” that the TSA workforce be represented by its current union, the American Federation of Government Employees. AFGE was chosen by TSA workers in 2011 by a plurality, although the overall vote in favor of unionization exceeded 84%.

“There has been enormous turnover at TSA over the last decade, and the fact is that very few people at TSA today voted for AFGE to be the union,” Rogers said. “If this were to become law, at a minimum we should allow workers to decide who their representation will be.”

The provision of the bill that instructs TSA to engage in collective bargaining negotiations with the workforce specifically states that they negotiate with AFGE or any “successor labor organization,” which retains employees’ right to vote to be represented by a new union if they wish.

“Nothing in H.R. 1140 restricts the workforce’s ability to elect union representation,” Thompson said. “[There] are options available—it’s not a closed door process, and we wouldn’t have that anyway.”

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

This story has been updated to reflect that the House passed the bill.