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Working In These Times

Monday, Jan 2, 2012, 7:50 pm

Union: Media’s Portrayal of TSA Employees Has Hurt Our Bargaining Power

BY Mike Elk

“A lot of people take this job very seriously—any bag I open could be my last,” said Heydrich Thomas, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) baggage screener who works at New York City's JFK airport and is also local union leader.

TSA employees, who work to prevent explosives and other weapons from entering airplanes, have some of the most dangerous jobs in America. According to TSA employee Eric Wood, vice president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1120, TSA employees find approximately 30 guns a week nationwide when searching people’s bags.

But despite the dangerous nature of their jobs, TSA workers have long been denied the ability to improve their working conditions through collective bargaining. Reports and surveys by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general show morale among TSA workers is at record lows, and that this jeopardizes airport security. According to AFGE officials, many TSA supervisors are former military members who create a hostile work environment for employees.  

In addition to poor treatment from bosses, TSA employees told In These Times that on a daily basis, workers are shouted at and have obscenities hurled at them by airline passengers upset for following TSA search procedures. Several workers complained that on several occasions airline passengers had physically assaulted TSA workers, but the passengers were allowed to board flights because TSA screeners are unable to arrest passengers who assault them.

TSA cannot legally arrest or detain power under powers granted to it by the federal government; in order to make arrests, TSA workers must call local police situated in the airport.

TSA workers' inability to detain or arrest people also hinders their ability to protect airlines in general according to TSA workers.  “My job is to stand in the exit doors that passengers from arriving flights are leaving. I am supposed to stop people from entering the airport through those doors, but if somebody tries to run through those doors, all I can do is yell at them to stop and call the police,” said one TSA employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job.

TSA employees are also paid significantly less than comparable federal employees, according to AFGE spokeswoman Emily Ryan. The starting salary for TSA employees is $24,000 a year; salaries max out at $36,000. At a forum on TSA workers hosted at the AFL-CIO's Washington D.C. headquarters on December 20, female TSA workers complained that it is difficult for women to obtain more highly paid TSA jobs working as baggage handlers. Since there is a shortage of women in the TSA and women TSA workers are requested to pat down other women, most women are required to work in passenger screening—a lower paid job category in the federal agency.

In the hopes of improving workplace conditions, last June the 44,000 strong TSA workforce voted to join AFGE. TSA employees had been barred for nearly 10 years from unionizing as a result of Bush-era rule denying TSA workers collective bargaining rights, but were granted this right by Obama’s TSA Administrator John Pistole.

However, since voting to the join the union, TSA administrators have refused to bargain in good faith, according to union officials, as I have reported. AFGE officials have been outraged that in bargaining, TSA has even refused to agree to a grievance procedure that allows a third-party arbitrator to hear a dispute—a common feature of nearly all union contracts, according to AFGE National President John Gage.

"These folks, it seems, know very little about labor relations," said Gage. "Pistole has set up a company policy that makes us a company union. We won't be a company union."

Many TSA union leaders say that it has been very difficult to draw attention to the refusal of TSA to bargain a fair contract with workers because of media outlets' negative portrayal of TSA search procedures. “We don’t feel we can stand up for our rights because of the media portrayal,” Wood says.

Following the debut of more stringent passenger screening procedures in recent years, a range of groups and individuals—from both the left and the right—have generated public anger against the TSA. But TSA bars employees from responding directly to allegation of sexual harassment levied against individual employees.  All the TSA employees I spoke to at the December forum on TSA workers denied that they have ever performed strip searches, claiming that the TSA protocol does not allow them to strip people naked—an accusation that has galvanized some against the TSA.

While some groups critical of TSA, like the Cato Institute, are interested in civil liberties, others who have criticized TSA workers—such as House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and Senator Jim Demint (R-S.C.)—have been linked to efforts to privatize airport security and deny TSA workers the right to collectively bargaining, as documented by Yasha Levine and Mark Ames in a investigative piece for AlterNet.

While there has been a very high degree of concern among progressives about the search policies of TSA, the often brutal working conditions of 44,000 people charged with protecting our airports have largely gone unnoticed. If those conditions had received as much media attention as the search procedures they are charged with implementing, it's possible America's newly unionized airport screeners might have had a first contract by now. Instead, negotiations with the federal government continue.

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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