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Working In These Times

Friday, Feb 4, 2011, 9:41 am

TSA Head Approves Very Limited Bargaining Rights for Baggage Screeners

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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The country's 40,000 airport security screeners will be given very limited collective bargaining rights, TSA Administrator John Pistole announced on Friday, after talks with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

When the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2001, the Administrator was given the power to decide whether to give screeners bargaining rights or not. Screeners have been denied bargaining rights by previous TSA Administrators.

Pistole said that TSA workers would likely vote this spring on whether to form a union. Even if they vote for a union, the screeners will have very limited rights to negotiate the terms of their employment. Officially, screeners will not be allowed to negotiate on matters of national security.

But the definition of "national security" seems almost preposterously expansive. Bizarrely, Pistole's announcement lists "pay, pensions and any form of compensation" as national security matters that will not be up for negotiation. Issues that will be up for negotiation include shift bids, the process for giving out awards, the "performance management process," and the "attendance management guidelines process."

The fact that a future union would be shut out of security decisions is significant in light of the controversy over the full-body scanners, which many screeners objected to on the grounds that the machines could be exposing them to dangerous levels of radiation.

Still, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called today's announcement "welcome news," The Hill reported. As Working In These Times reported last week, in early March about 48,000 TSA workers will vote to join either the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) or the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU).

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged to allow screeners the right to bargain. Many expected that these rights would be extended soon after Obama's election. However, Obama faced stiff Republican opposition to his nominees for TSA Administrator.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) placed a hold on Obama's initial pick for TSA Administrator, Erroll G. Southers, because of Southers' pro-union sentiments. Southers withdrew from consideration in January 2010. (Southers' bid to lead the TSA was also tarnished by his admission that, many years ago, he misused government databases to investigate a man who was then dating his ex-wife.) Just weeks later, Obama's second choice to head the TSA, retired intelligence officer Maj. Gen. Robert A. Harding, withdrew his nomination after allegations emerged that Harding's firm had overcharged the government for providing interrogators in Iraq.

Pistole, former deputy director of the FBI, finally took over as TSA Administrator in July 2010.

Pistole's decision to allow collective bargaining rights sets a good precedent, but the scope of these rights is so narrow as to make them largely meaningless. What good is a union that can't negotiate pensions or pay rates?

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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