TSA Administrator David Pekoske, pictured here on Oct. 13, 2021, said the agency's new collective bargaining agreement with AFGE helps maintain leadership's connection to the workforce.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske, pictured here on Oct. 13, 2021, said the agency's new collective bargaining agreement with AFGE helps maintain leadership's connection to the workforce. Tom Williams / Getty Images

TSA and AFGE ink their first contract under expanded collective bargaining rules

After two decades of abridged or no collective bargaining rights, frontline Transportation Security Administration finally enjoy similar rights to their colleagues elsewhere in government.

Representatives from the Transportation Security Administration and the American Federation of Government Employees on Thursday signed their first union contract under expanded collective bargaining rights recently afforded to airport screeners by the Biden administration.

Prior to 2021, frontline TSA employees enjoyed only abridged collective bargaining rights, compared to most other federal workers, who are covered by Title 5 of the U.S. Code. And they were drastically underpaid compared to feds hired under the General Schedule pay system, leading to high attrition and consistently among the worst morale in the federal government, as measured by the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Last year, TSA implemented a new pay system akin to the General Schedule, which in practice meant many screeners saw 30% pay increases. TSA officials said that since the pay raises were announced, attrition has fallen in half, and job postings have seen increased numbers of applications.

The new union contract, which was ratified by the union in March, streamlines grievance and arbitration rules and greatly expands work-life balance policies like shift trading. Crucially, also memorializes the expanded rights recently granted to the workforce, given that the change occurred administratively and absent congressional action, a future administration could revert the Biden administration’s reforms. The contract runs until 2031, with a limited reopener provision allowing for the renegotiation of three articles beginning in 2027.

Speaking with reporters after the ceremony, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said that cultivating a strong relationship with federal employee unions is essential for anyone who seeks to run a large agency.

“If you’re leading a large agency like TSA, that has people on the front lines dealing direct government services to the public, you need to make sure you understand the issues they’re facing, that they feel like you’re in their corner, that you have their back, that you’re working to make sure the things that they depend on, like good procedures, technology and fair pay, and that they see you consistently advocating for that and delivering,” he said. “I can’t imagine running an agency like TSA or any other big operating agency in the federal government without that personal connection with the workforce.”

Though currently, a future administration could revoke many of the rights recently provided to the TSA workforce, union leaders said they are hopeful they can soon codify those protections in law. On Tuesday, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Sen. Aaron Schatz, D-Hawaii, reintroduced the Rights for the Transportation Security Administration Workforce Act (H.R. 8370), which would apply Title 5 rights to the TSA workforce. On the House side, eight of the bill’s 16 sponsors are Republican.

“Prior to 2022 or so, we had an attrition rate [at TSA] that was out of the ceiling, but as a result of this contract and our collective efforts, attrition is down 51%, and that’s why this is all so important,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley. “People are looking to come to TSA to work because they know now that it’s a great place to work, they’re going to have people who care about them . . . looking at the needs of the workforce . . . Now is the right time for this bill to come to fruition.”

Johnny Jones, a 22-year TSA employee and secretary treasurer of AFGE Council 100 joked that he can finally recommend his agency to jobseekers.

“I remember when I started working here, I was like, ‘Where’s the union office at? I need to sign up immediately,’” he said. “They were like, ‘Oh, we don’t have one,’ and I thought, ‘What kind of federal job is this?’ They were like, ‘This is a great place to work,’ and I went, ‘Well I don’t know about that.’ But here we are 20 years later, and I can finally recommend my kids to come work here.”