Since the creation of the Transportation Security Administration shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, its airport screeners have sought to be part of a collective bargaining unit.
The Bush Administration and congressional Republicans opposed that, however. Thus, 40,000 TSA workers continued to work without the kind of union representation some wanted.
On Friday, all that changed.
Following an TSA review of the issue, John Pistole, the agency's administrator, said screeners will now be allowed to vote on whether they want a union to collectively bargain with the agency on their behalf. (A TSA fact sheet provides good background.)
In November, the Federal Labor Relations Authority ruled that TSA screeners should be allowed to vote on whether they wanted to be represented by a single union. That decision didn't give them collective bargaining rights, however. Pistole's decision changes that.
The ostensible reason the previous administration and congressional critics gave for opposing collective bargaining rights for TSA workers was a concern that could impair TSA management's flexibility to deploy workers as needed, especially during periods of heightened terrorism threats.
Organized labor suspected its ties to the Democratic Party didn't exactly help Republicans warm to the idea of thousands of TSA workers being represented by a union in negotiations either.
During the 2008 campaign, then candidate Barack Obama promised to give TSA workers bargaining rights.
The Obama Administration won't allow any union agreements to reduce air traveler security, Pistole said. From a TSA statement:
"The safety of the traveling public is our top priority and we will not negotiate on security," said TSA Administrator Pistole. "But morale and employee engagement cannot be separated from achieving superior security. If security officers vote to move forward with collective bargaining, this framework will ensure that TSA retains the capability and flexibility necessary to respond to evolving threats, and continue improving employee engagement, performance and professional development."
John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, one of two unions vying to represent workers in an election scheduled to start in March, said in a statement:
Today marks the recognition of a fundamental human right for 40,000 patriotic federal employees who have been disenfranchised since the inception of the agency.
We have come a long way since AFGE first began representing TSOs in 2001 when the union took up the fight for a federalized security officer workforce. The granting of these rights is a step in the right direction and gets us in the door. After AFGE wins the election to be the sole union at TSA, we will move immediately to the table and be ready to negotiate.
The National Treasury Employees Union which also hopes to represent TSA workers also issued a statement:
"This decision and the upcoming representation election at TSA will give these officers a voice in their workplace and a chance at a better future," said NTEU President Colleen M. Kelley. "The sooner NTEU is certified as the exclusive representative of the TSA workforce, the sooner we can begin improving the lives of employees at this key agency."
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) introduced an amendment earlier this week to the Federal Aviation Administration bill to bar TSA screeners from gaining collective bargaining rights.
An excerpt from his statement:
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"The Obama Administration's actions today to move forward on unionizing our TSA workforce with collective bargaining rights could hamper our national security," said Wicker. "Earlier this week, I offered an amendment, which is currently being debated in the Senate, that would prohibit collective bargaining for TSA security screeners. Despite the fact that the Senate is considering this very issue, the Administration decided to move forward with this ill-advised policy."