By Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 12/9/2003 1:00:28 PM ET 2003-12-09T18:00:28

Union leaders are pushing the Bush administration to allow some 50,000 federal airport baggage and passenger screeners the right to collective bargaining under union representation, saying they’ll take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

The push for collective-bargaining rights comes as the Transportation Security Administration has cut some 6,000 screener jobs at airports nationwide in an effort to get its budget under control, and near the one-year anniversary of the deadline to have a federal screener workforce in place.

Ironically, the federal jobs themselves, created by congressional mandate in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, could be in jeopardy. In November 2004, owing to federal legislation, airports will have the right to choose whether they want to keep the federalized screener workforce or return to private hiring.

Poll came before breach
The American Federation of Government Employees, the union that is seeking to represent the TSA screeners in collective bargaining negotiations, released a poll Monday saying that 69 percent of those surveyed “feel safer knowing that the federal government has a trained professional workforce protecting our airports.”

The October poll, however, was taken before last week’s widely publicized security breech in which a student was able to smuggle box-cutters and other objects that mimicked dangerous materials onto two Southwest Airlines jets.

Union President John Gage said he didn’t have any data to comment on whether the recent security breech would put a dent in the public’s confidence as related in the polling numbers.

In March, screeners from around the country met in Washington to announce they would affiliate with AFGE despite advance word from TSA Administrator James Loy that he would not formally bargain or recognize any employee union.

“Mandatory collective bargaining is not compatible with the flexibility required to wage the war against terrorism,” Loy said in January when he signed the order precluding collective-bargaining arrangements. “That can mean changes in work assignments and other conditions of employment that are not compatible with the duty to bargain with labor unions.”

“We’re going to fight this,” Gage said during a news conference Monday. “We’ll go to the Supreme Court if we have to, because we believe it’s a constitutional issue for American workers to be able to form unions.” The AFGE case is currently in the U.S. Appeals Court.

The ban on collective bargaining negotiations, however, doesn’t preclude TSA’s screeners from joining a union.

“In a grievance or any matter in which a screener may have a representative, the screener can select the representative of their choice, including someone from the union,” the TSA said in an e-mail response. “That person would be representing only the screener — not speaking for any other screeners or group of screeners.”

Call for privatization
“Every time there’s a security breach it seems that [some members of Congress] raise their heads and start arguing that the screeners should become privatized,” Gage said. “We heard a lot of that last week.”

Currently the TSA is evaluating privatization pilot programs at five airports — Kansas City, Mo.; San Francisco; Rochester, N.Y.; Tupelo, Miss.; and Jackson Hole, Wy. — to evaluate security procedures and practices. Next year, airports can “opt out” of using the federalized screener workforce and go with contracted screeners provided by TSA.

Security at U.S. airports “should remain the responsibility of federal employees,” said Adam Goldberg, policy analyst for Consumers Union. The independent organization was an early supporter of a federalized screener workforce. “This critical function should not again be subject to a patchwork system of contractors,” Goldberg said.

During a congressional hearing last week, Loy told members of the House aviation subcommittee that as many as 24 airports could opt for contract screeners, though he had no estimate of how many of those might actually chose private screeners over the federal force.

'Stress can be overwhelming'
TSA screeners have complained long and loud about their working conditions, from the lack of ventilation to pump jet fumes out of cramped baggage screening quarters, to sexual harassment, to retaliation for speaking out about security problems.

“The stress can be overwhelming,” said Stacy Bodtmann, a passenger screener at Newark International Airport. “Every supervisory order seems to be prefaced with, ‘You’ll be fired if you don’t do it.’”

Bodtmann, a self-styled “union activist,” also complained of “forced overtime” when “at the end of your shift you suddenly find out that you’re needed for another three hours.” Bodtmann said refusing the extra hours isn’t an option. “If you don’t work the overtime, there’s the proverbial threat of termination.”

The TSA has an ombudsman office to handle such complaints. But “it’s a joke,” Bodtmann said. It’s rare to actually get a human on the phone, Bodtmann said, and if you do leave a number, calls “never get returned.”

TSA is candid in admitting that errors were made as the federal screener workforce ramped up at a pace of 5,000 new hires per week. “Given these numbers, TSA admits that there were glitches including pay and health insurance deductions,” the agency said in an e-mail response and noted that any remaining problems are being addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Changing national security threat levels and daily intelligence briefings demands the ability to change scheduling, “as needed,” TSA said, declining to detail how and when such changes are made.

Problems on the job
Issues of sexual harassment, injuries on the job and threats “are issues that TSA takes seriously. We are working individual cases for resolution and also ensuring that these issues are not systemic,” the agency said.

TSA denied the assertion that its ombudsman is non-responsive, saying the office has helped “hundreds” of employees resolve problems. “Not every issue that we address has a solution or an outcome that is satisfactory to all parties,” the TSA said.

Despite such assurances by TSA officials, union officials claim that working conditions are dreadful and that screeners are fleeing their jobs, leaving an already strained workforce shorthanded.

But Loy, during last week’s congressional hearing, said that pre-9/11 turnover for private company screeners was up to 400 percent with the average time in the job of about 4.5 months.

By comparison, Loy said, the TSA screeners have seen only a 13.6 percent turnover rate.

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