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Screeners Under Obama May Give Federal Unions Main Win in Years

Nearly 5,000 Transportation Security Administration employees work split shifts at 342 airports, according to agency figures. Photographer: Chris Rank/Bloomberg
Nearly 5,000 Transportation Security Administration employees work split shifts at 342 airports, according to agency figures. Photographer: Chris Rank/Bloomberg

March 9 (Bloomberg) -- A collective-bargaining vote by airport security workers that starts today may give federal employee groups their biggest victory in years, even as public workers in some states struggle to keep their union status.

The country’s two largest federal-employee unions are competing to represent the 44,000 screeners who can cast their ballots through April 19. The effort, which Senate Republicans failed to stop last month, may raise Transportation Security Administration costs if workers push through changes such as increased staffing.

“It’s a historic election,” said John Gage, president of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, which is vying to represent the screeners. “This is the biggest labor vote in probably 25 years.” The workers would be the largest-ever group brought into the union at one time, he said in a telephone interview.

Gage and Colleen Kelley, president of the competing National Treasury Employees Union, with about 150,000 members, expect one of them will prevail over another option -- no union at all. That’s in contrast to states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey, where public workers are fighting reductions in benefits and bargaining rights and not expecting gains.

“It’s really a big deal,” Kelley said in a telephone interview. “This is the largest election that has ever been held in the federal sector.”

President Barack Obama, a Democrat who won the White House with labor support, is allowing the vote. Republican President George W. Bush’s administration blocked union organization in January 2003, more than a year after the agency was created.

‘Political Kickback’

“President Obama made this decision for one reason: to give a political kickback to the union bosses who poured money into his campaign,” Senator James DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, said in a statement e-mailed by his spokesman.

The White House referred comment to the security agency.

"TSA is committed to the integrity of this election and to supporting the employees’ right to choose by staying neutral throughout this process,’’ Kristin Lee, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an e-mail.

DeMint on Feb. 15 supported a proposal by Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, that would have barred agency workers from organizing. The Democratic-controlled Senate defeated the proposal, 51-47.

Gage said one of his priorities would be to boost staffing at airports where screeners have been forced work split shifts. Some work about three hours in the morning, take a mandatory break of about four hours, and finish three more hours later in the day, he said.

“It’s just an ungodly system,” Gage said. “They’ve really skimped on some aspects of airport security.”

Almost 5,000 employees work split shifts at 342 airports, according to agency figures.

Allowing Favoritism?

Gage and Kelley said they would also aim to scrap the pay-for-performance system, which according to the agency gives financial incentives for superior performance.

The existing program allows for favoritism and “is based on really low wages,” Kelley said. While a union can’t bargain over pay according to TSA rules, it can discuss the process for determining who gets awards, she said.

John Pistole, the security agency’s chief, said in his Feb. 4 decision allowing the election that workers also can’t bargain over security or disciplinary penalties, strike, or take job actions such as deliberate slowdowns.

They can bargain for a contract of at least three years on issues such as their uniforms, parking subsidies, transfers, shift trades, and methods for seeking assignments and leaves, Pistole said in the decision.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Hughes in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at

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