TSA supports unionizing airport screeners—well, some of them

Posted: Aug 29, 2005 12:00 AM

While most of the Bush administration has been fighting against increased unionization of security-related positions since 9/11, the Transportation Security Administration is headed the other way in a small case with national implications.

TSA isn’t only going against the overall Bush Administration position; it’s reversing its own stated policy.

In January 2003, the then-head of TSA, Adm. J.M. Loy, banned unionization of all airport screeners, citing “their critical national security responsibilities.” Yet more than two years later, TSA is claiming that screeners who do the same exact work for its competition — the private firms that provide security at a few U.S. airports —don’t serve a “critical national security” function.

What’s going on? Well, some in Congress would like to see those private firms take over from TSA at more airports. The agency might just be looking to hamstring the competition.

In a recent administrative hearing on whether or not privately-employed screeners can unionize, the TSA filed an “interested party” brief that mentioned nothing about the “critical national security responsibilities” of screeners. Instead, TSA’s two-page brief simply said that, though TSA-employed screeners are barred from unionizing, privately-employed screeners — who do the same exact work — are not.

If the National Labor Relations Board rules in favor of the union—and TSA’s brief makes that more likely — the immediate impact would be limited to screeners at the five airports in the pilot program. (Screeners at all other airports are employed directly by TSA.)

But if, as expected, the number of airports using private security explodes, then so could unionization. And even though it would be illegal for private screeners to strike, they could (as the air traffic controllers did in 1981), or they could simply come down with “blue flu” and call in sick all at once.

Then again, unionization could chew up the private security companies’ already-thin profit margins, letting TSA retain its near-monopoly control.

TSA, for its part, believes that its recent brief does not contradict the Loy directive. That document didn’t specifically mention private screeners, but it made no distinction between TSA- and privately-employed screeners in banning all unions. And given that the memo was drafted in January 2003 — only two months after the first airports enrolled in the pilot program — it is highly unlikely that TSA lawyers just forgot that there were private screeners.

The two members of Congress most responsible for the bill that created TSA back in November 2001 — former Majority Leader Dick Armey and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica — both submitted briefs saying that Congress intentionally made no distinction between private and TSA screeners, since they all do the same critical security job.

TSA controls virtually every substantive aspect of employment of screeners who work for private contractors: base pay, working conditions, supervision and training. One of the few differences: Private screeners are guaranteed pay at least equal to their TSA counterparts.

In other words, unions could blackmail companies to pay higher salaries than TSA does—yet most or all of that extra pay would be eaten up in compulsory union dues.

The other loser if the union wins is the White House. President Bush has argued for almost four years that employment flexibility is critical for any positions related to national security. Now his own administration is on record expressing no concern whatsoever about unionizing airport screeners— as long as they don’t work for TSA directly.

“All hope is not lost,” said Mark Mix, President of the National Right to Work Committee.  “But only the White House can order TSA to get with the program.  Our national security is at stake.”  He’s right.

What passenger wants to worry if the person checking bags is another “Arabic Assassin,” the baggage screener/aspiring rapper who rapped that he was “affiliated with the Taliban”?  TSA was able to fire him the second they learned about his side “career”—but only because he worked for them and didn’t belong to a union.

But what would’ve happened if the “Arabic Assassin” worked for a union?  Do we really want to be forced to ask that question?

Or what if the screener is still on the job despite having let at least several weapons slip by — because his union filed a grievance?