Last week, TSA Administrator John Pistole bestowed very limited collective bargaining rights on the nation’s 40,000 transportation security officers (TSO). It was a bittersweet moment for Ron Moore, a former TSO who served for more than five years. Apart from a 9‑month stint at SEIU, he’s been unemployed since he quit TSA in 2007. He was even homeless for a while.
Pistole stipulated that if TSOs vote to form a union, they will not be allowed to bargain over compensation, disciplinary standards, job qualifications or proficiency testing. A union would be allowed to negotiate on such relatively peripheral issues as shift bids, transfers, awards and uniform allowances. No federal workers bargain over pay, but disciplinary standards are a core issue for a public union.
“If you can’t collectively bargain over disciplinary issues, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re unhappy about your schedule,” Moore said. His story illustrates why bargaining over disciplinary issues is so important. Moore was galvanized to join the TSA by the attacks of 9⁄11, and became part of the first class of officers to train for the job. “We were the guinea pigs,” he explained.
Moore started work in the spring of 2002 at what was then known as the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. “I was a labor true believer,” said Moore, who’d worked for the AFL-CIO before signing on with the TSA. He was expecting to play an active role in the union at his new workplace. Moore had worked at the Pentagon and the National Institutes of Health, so he thought he knew what to expect in a federal workplace.
“The federal government is a place where, ideally, we live up to the best of what the workplace can be because a taxpayer is paying for it,” he said. He says his trainers never explained that TSA agents had no collective bargaining rights. He only later found out that the TSA believed itself to be exempt from OSHA rules and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Despite the lack of rights at work, Moore liked the job. “You really felt you were doing something important,” he said, “Passengers were overwhelmingly positive, despite what you read.” About two years into Moore’s tenure at the TSA, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) began a campaign to support the security officers. Moore got involved right away. He became the first elected president of AFGE Local 1.
Shortly thereafter, Moore was reprimanded for circulating a letter he had written to management complaining about racism in his workplace. Moore says he became aware of the problem when a white female screener pointed at a group of black passengers and said, “If it were up to me I’d send them all back to Africa.”
After that he started noticing troubling patterns: “If a screener was black, he wasn’t going to make screener of the month, he wasn’t going to be promoted.” He saw white officers snitching on their black colleagues for what seemed to him like trivial and malicious reasons. So he complained to management in a letter and sent the letter around to his coworkers.
“I wanted to rally my coworkers to join a union,” he said of his decision to circulate the letter, “I wanted to throw down gauntlet to management.” In late 2004, as president of Local 1, Moore wrote a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post called “Training Daze at the TSA”. Moore described how he and his fellow officers weren’t getting their legally mandated three hours of training a week.
In the op-ed, Moore assailed the TSA’s “negligence” for not complying with the congressional mandate for training. Moore saw a vicious cycle: Substandard and stressful training spurred massive turnover, and the expense of replacing all those workers left even less money for training.
“People were quitting like crazy,” Moore recalls, “We lost our training rooms because we couldn’t pay rent because of cost overruns for all the new people.” After the op-ed came out, Moore got the sense that management was looking for away to get rid of him. A few days after the column ran, he received a letter giving him 10 days to resolve a $1,200 tax lien from the State of Maryland from 1990. A TSO with significant unpaid debts is considered a security risk on the assumption that cash-strapped officers are more susceptible to bribery.
Moore says he didn’t even know he owed the money, though he suspects the TSA had known all along because it runs regular credit checks on officers. He took care of the lien, which turned out to be partly in error, but he was fired anyway, ostensibly for neglecting the issue in the first place and for the earlier reprimand. “I lost my marriage and my house. I couldn’t get unemployment. I couldn’t find a job,” he said.
AFGE appealed to the TSA’s internal disciplinary board and won Moore’s job back. Even so, it took more than a year to get him reinstated. By this point his credit really was bad. As soon as he got back to work, he published another op-ed in the Washington Post in April 2006. He says he wanted the other workers to know that he “wasn’t going to shut up.”
“[TSA] immediately gave me another letter of proposal for removal,” he said. The debts he incurred while he was wrongfully dismissed were now being used against him. His bad credit was labeled a bribery risk. In October 2007, Moore chose to quit after being tipped off by a friendly manager about the agency’s plans to terminate him.
He got a job at SEIU, but was laid off after a few months. He’s been unemployed ever since. While he was homeless, he started blogging about TSO issues from a computer at the local library. (In an unexpected stroke of good luck, one of Moore’s old SEIU coworkers read about his plight in a blog post and offered him a place to live.) Moore started hearing from TSOs all over the country who were upset about their working conditions but afraid to speak out.
Working officersseem to get fired for speaking to the press — but Moore is beyond the reach of the TSA now. His mission is to bring the rank-and-file officer’s perspective to coverage of TSA issues. Moore was buoyed by the news of Pistole’s decision, even though he knows the fine print leaves much to be desired. “It’s what we have,” he said, “We have to be happy with whatever crumbs we have.”