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TSA administrator assures GOP on unionizing airport screeners

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN Senior Producer
TSA Administrator John Pistole spoke Thursday at a meeting of the House Homeland Security Transportation Subcommittee.
TSA Administrator John Pistole spoke Thursday at a meeting of the House Homeland Security Transportation Subcommittee.
  • Pushed on question of strike, leader says he would fire if necessary
  • Lawmaker unhappy about end to privatization program
  • "Trusted-traveler-type" screening expected to start this year

Washington (CNN) -- The head of the Transportation Security Administration assured Republican lawmakers Thursday that unionization of airport screeners is not likely to lead to illegal strikes or work slowdowns, but said he would be willing to fire workers en masse should that happen.

Administrator John Pistole, who last week said he will allow the nation's 40,000-plus screeners to vote for limited union rights, said he "can't envision" screeners engaging in a job action under the proposed initiative.

But in response to a questions by Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, who cited the 1981 strike by air traffic controllers, Pistole said employees who engage in job actions would be subject to normal disciplinary procedures.

"I won't allow anything that would adversely affect security," Pistole said.

"I'm trying to get a clear 'Yes' or 'No' answer from you," Brooks said to Pistole. "If (screeners) engage in a work stoppage or slowdown, or should they engage in a strike, are you willing to fire them en masse? Yes or no?"

"I'm willing to, yes," Pistole answered.

The hearing was Pistole's first before the House Homeland Security Transportation Subcommittee, now controlled by the Republicans.

Republican members pointedly questioned Pistole about his union decision and his decision to put the brakes on a program allowing airports to privatize screening jobs.

Rep. Daniel Lungren, R-California, said the decision to stop privatizing screening reflected Pistole's "bias" against private industry. Private screeners at San Francisco International Airport, Lungren said, adopted changes that have benefited the whole TSA work force. Specifically, he said, the San Francisco company designated certain people to handle heavy bags, reducing injuries.

Pistole acknowledged privatization had worked, and said he had not eliminated the possibility of privatizing more airport security in the future.

In other highlights:

• Pistole said he expects to unveil a "trusted traveler-type" program for air travelers later this year. TSA screeners currently use a "one-size-fits-all approach," he said.

"I am committed to doing something this year that would demonstrate a different paradigm on how we do passenger screening," he said. "If individuals are willing to give us more information about themselves so we could do criminal history checks and other checks, then we might be able to afford them a different type of security screening."

• Pistole said recent covert tests of airport checkpoints by the Government Accountability Office showed an improvement.

Historically, screeners have performed poorly in the tests, in which plainclothes testers sneak weapons or explosive components through checkpoints. However, Pistole said the GAO told him tests conducted in January "were found to be the most thorough and the best."

• Pistole said the TSA's recent enhanced screening of thermos bottles was based on "credible intelligence" that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was considering using the chemical explosive PETN in thermos liners.

"We pushed that information out literally the same day we received it to U.S. carriers," he said. "So security officers were doing enhanced screening of thermoses from that day on and that continues."