Airport Screeners allowed to unionize and bargain collectively

Published 17 February 2011

John Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), last Friday announced that he would authorize unions to bargain on behalf of the TSA’s 45,000 airport screening officers; unions will be allowed to bargain collectively over specific issues including regulations on vacation time and shift assignments, workplace transfers, and recognition for good work; topics that unions usually bargain for like pay, retirement, benefits, disciplinary standards, job qualification rules, safety equipment and where it is deployed will not be open to negotiation; this unique arrangement is designed to allow DHS the flexibility to quickly reassign screeners, change procedures, and alter equipment in response to a security threat; Pistole hopes that this arrangement will boost employee morale and performance; in surveys on employee morale and job satisfaction, TSA often performs poorly compared to other government agencies

Last Friday John Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), announced that he would authorize unions to bargain on behalf of the TSA’s 45,000 airport screening officers.

Pistole said that he would allow unions to collectively bargain over specific issues including regulations on vacation time and shift assignments, workplace transfers, and recognition for good work.

Topics that unions usually bargain for like pay, retirement, benefits, disciplinary standards, job qualification rules, safety equipment and where it is deployed will not be open to negotiation. Unions will also only be allowed to negotiate on a national level and not with state or local unions.

In a statement Pistole said, “The safety of the traveling public is our top priority, and we will not negotiate on security. But morale and employee engagement cannot be separated from achieving superior security.”

According to an unnamed agency official that spoke with the New York Times, this non-traditional union arrangement is designed to allow DHS to have the flexibility to respond to security threats by quickly reassigning security officers, changing security procedures, or altering equipment without first consulting unions.

Security officers will also not be allowed to strike or organize any work-slow downs and there will be limits to the duration of negotiations.

John Gage, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), was enthusiastic about the announcement, despite the limitations imposed on what unions could negotiate for.

At a press conference Gage stated, “Whether you call it collective bargaining or not, we can go a long way towards removing the frustration among the TSOs [transportation security officers] and produce a healthy workforce and one that enhances the security of the flying public.”

Pistole echoes this sentiment and hopes that the ability for TSA officers to collectively bargain will improve morale and performance.

In reference to the agreement, Pistole said, “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.”

In surveys on employee morale and job satisfaction, TSA often performs poorly compared to other government agencies.

In 2010 TSA ranked 220 out of 224 government agency subcomponents for employee satisfaction.

Representative John Mica (R-Florida), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, criticized Pistole’s decision saying it was “all bad news for the traveler, the taxpayer and aviation security” because it would limit the flexibility of TSA.

In the past security screeners were allowed to join unions, but those unions were limited to only representing employees as individuals in certain situations and could not bargain collectively. Currently approximately 13,000 TSA screeners have joined either AFGE or the National Treasury Employees (NTE) union.

On 9 March 2011, security screeners are scheduled to vote on whether to have a union represent them and if so, which one. Screeners will be choosing between AFGE and NTE.

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