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TSA clears way for airport screeners to seek broader union rights

By Jeanne Meserve and Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
  • TSA will allow screeners option of collective bargaining rights
  • But screeners won't be able to negotiate on many issues
  • Matter has been long debated in Congress

Washington (CNN) -- The head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Friday gave the nation's 40,000-plus airport screeners the opportunity to engage in limited collective bargaining, pressing ahead on a hot-button issue that has separated Republicans and Democrats since the creation of the TSA after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

When Congress created the TSA in 2003, it gave the administrator the authority to decide whether or not screeners should be allowed to engage in collective bargaining. Bush administration TSA chiefs opted not to endorse bargaining, saying it would impede their ability to protect the public.

On Friday, TSA Administrator John Pistole announced he would allow airport screeners to select a union for collective bargaining, or to forgo bargaining. In a statement, Pistole said sitting down at a bargaining table with screeners would not jeopardize the nation.

"The safety of the traveling public is our top priority and we will not negotiate on security," Pistole said.

Indeed, the paper outlining his decision precludes negotiations on security policies, pay, pensions and compensation, proficiency testing, job qualifications and discipline standards. It also will prohibit screeners from striking or engaging in work slowdowns.

The announcement gives added weight to a recent Federal Labor Relations Authority decision to allow a vote granting sole union representation authority to a single union. The FLRA has tentatively scheduled a vote for March 9 through April 19 to determine which union will represent airport screeners. It will also give the screeners the option of having no union represent them.

The unions vying for the job are the American Federation of Government Employees, part of the AFL-CIO, and the National Treasury Employees Union. Both unions called Pistole's decision good news.

Congressional reaction fell along party lines.

"I want to commend Administrator Pistole for taking this positive step," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. "Collective bargaining does not diminish our security -- it can actually enhance workforce productivity and TSA's mission."

Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, called the move "President Obama's biggest give to organized labor."

During the formation of the TSA, Congress limited airport screener's unionization powers, saying managers needed flexibility to address changing terrorist threats.

Bush administration officials later cited the 2006 liquid bomb plot, when the TSA rapidly changed restrictions to prevent terrorists from smuggling explosive liquids on passenger aircraft. TSA officials say they did not have to consult with union representatives before changing screening protocols and work hours.

But supporters of collective bargaining powers say that numerous other law enforcement agencies have broad union rights that do not hinder security.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised to support collective bargaining for airport screeners. In a letter to a union chief just two weeks before the 2008 election, Obama wrote that if he was elected, "I will work to ensure that TSOs [Transportation Security Officers] have collective bargaining rights." He said he would make it a "priority for my administration."