Obama Backs Collective Bargaining for Airport Screeners

Published January 23, 2011

Airport security screeners employed by the Transportation Security Administration may soon have a labor union backing them.

The Obama administration has pledged to extend collective bargaining rights to TSA workers, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) has granted requests from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) to hold an election to see which union will represent the 43,000 TSA workers. The election could be held early in 2011.

Unions are also pushing Congress to pass a law making union representation and collective bargaining permanent. Two House committees approved such a bill in September 2009, but the full House has not voted on it.

‘About-Face from Original Aim’
F. Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the decision to allow TSA employees to unionize “is an about-face from the original aim of the agency. In a 2003 memorandum, the under-secretary for transportation said TSA employees should not unionize because ‘of their critical national security responsibilities.’ If TSA is unionized, the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union could share in over $30 million of potential dues. With all the talk of security and ‘enhanced screening,’ the question is, does the unionization issue have more to do with national security or money for union bosses.”

“The decision to allow for an exclusive union representative means that transportation security officers get to choose which union they wish to act as their voice at work,” AFGE National President John Gage said in a statement. “It is no secret that the morale of the TSA work force is terrible as a result of favoritism, a lack of fair and respectful treatment from many managers, poor and unhealthy conditions in some airports, poor training and testing protocols, and a poor pay system.”

NTEU President Colleen Kelley also lauded the decision and a Dec. 6, 2010 letter of support from Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), then chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, to TSA Administrator John Pistole.

“Chairman Thompson recognizes, as do a great many of his colleagues, the importance of collective bargaining rights in the positive development of TSA,” Kelley said in a statement.

The NTEU already represents the 21,000 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees, who voted for the union in 2006.

‘A Homeland Security Disaster’
Other lawmakers strongly oppose the possibility of union representation of TSA workers, including Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). In 2009 DeMint sent a letter to the White House objecting to possible union representation.
“Unionizing TSA would be a homeland security disaster,” DeMint wrote. “TSA needs to be nimble in responding to ever-changing threats. Having to wait and check with the union bosses before reacting to urgent aviation security threats reduces our ability to keep Americans safe.”

Some independent labor experts also express concerns.

“Unionizing the TSA gropers is more insidious than just a payoff to the unions for their political support,” said David Denholm, president of the Public Service Research Foundation, which studies the impact of unions on government policy. “There is growing pressure to privatize the airport screening. This flies directly in the face of the Obama administration’s determination to ‘in-source’ as many federal jobs as possible. Those who want to unionize the TSA undoubtedly see a unionized workforce as a more effective bulwark to efficiency and cost-effectiveness.”

‘Government vs. Private Enterprise’
John M. Palatiello, president of the Business Coalition for Fair Competition, said TSA unionization “is a small part of a bigger issue—not just union versus non-union, but government versus private enterprise. The Orlando airport was the first to opt-out of TSA. Others have since followed.

“With a majority of union members in the United States now government employees, rather than private sector, government is now the single biggest growth industry for the labor movement. The bigger the government is, the more members, money, and power the unions will have.”

And, he added, “There is no demonstrated evidence that federalizing the screeners has made air travel any safer.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.