A lot of tough political decisions must wait until after the national elections on Nov. 2 for some resolution–many of which Congress will debate upon its return to Washington in the weeks following the election.
But one politically delicate issue is pending only a recommendation by John Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)–whether to confer collective bargaining rights to the agency’s transportation security officers (TSOs).
Republicans have fought collective bargaining at TSA, arguing that it would jeopardize national security by providing airport screeners with the ability to object to new mission assignments or longer hours in the face of aviation security threats. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) so strongly opposed the idea that he put an interminable hold on President Barack Obama’s first nominee to head TSA late last year.
DeMint did not repeat the maneuver on Pistole, Obama’s third nominee, stating his conviction that Pistole’s time in service at the FBI, which has no unions, would instruct the administrator on the concept that unions are bad for national security.
But Pistole vowed he would study the issue nonetheless and indeed he has been engaged in a months-long assessment as to whether bestowing collective bargaining to screeners would be a good idea.
In a House hearing on Sept. 23, Pistole told lawmakers he would deliver his recommendations on collective bargaining to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano within "weeks rather than months."
TSA spokesperson Greg Soulé declined to provide specifics on the review but he did confirm that it is ongoing.
"Administrator Pistole is performing a thorough review of this issue, including meeting with frontline employees, stakeholders, and union representatives. Ultimately, he will discuss his review with Secretary Napolitano," Soulé told HSToday.us.
Once Napolitano receives the recommendations and the accompanying information, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has determined she has the authority to provide collective bargaining rights to TSOs with a stroke of a pen.
But TSOs then would have to hold an election to determine which union would represent them. The two top unions competing for that prize are the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), both of which shared their views on the value of collective bargaining.
Continued low morale
NTEU President Colleen Kelley reminded HSToday.us that TSA continues to rank at the bottom of rankings for the best places to work in the federal government, citing a September survey by the Partnership for Public Service that placed TSA at 220 out of 224 federal components.
That was a drop from being ranked at 213 the year before.
"I would have been very surprised if they would have improved due to their working environment. Without collective bargaining, it is very unlikely that it’s going to improve much if at all because of basic due process rights and the pay system–none of those things are going to change without collective bargaining rights," Kelley told HSToday.us.
Morale among TSA screeners has remained low since the agency’s creation due to an unpopular pay system created just for the agency and due to a lack of independent adjudication of employee concerns, Kelley argued. Collective bargaining rights would give TSOs an appropriate avenue for addressing their concerns, she said.
For now, the unions are waiting as Pistole conducts his review.
"We do not have a date certain when he will be finished," Kelley noted. "I am hopeful and optimistic that it will be within the next month or so. Hopefully then, they would be granted their collective bargaining rights. In pretty short order then, an election would be ordered so they would have the opportunity to vote for a representative under collective bargaining."
Once collective bargaining were granted, TSA employees would formally elect a union to represent them in exercising bargaining rights, Kelley explained. It could take three to four months for employees to wrap up an election. Then TSA employees and management would open up a dialogue on their first collective bargaining agreement, where "working conditions would be bargained rather than unilaterally dictated by the agency," she said.
The first step in that processwould involve a negotiation of the ground rules, including the schedule for bargaining and the length of time for bargaining. So it’s difficult to predict exactly how soon after receiving collective bargaining rights that TSOs would be able to exercise them.
Meanwhile, Kelley had the opportunity to meet with Pistole at the beginning of his review and to make the case for collective bargaining.
"That was my opportunity to explain to him why we thought it made business sense for TSA and that it is the right thing for employees, but also to try to allay concerns that the naysayers may have raised with him about what collective bargaining rights would do in the workplace," Kelley commented. "The fact is that even with collective bargaining rights, the agency has the authority and the ability to make decisions it needs to make operationally every day based on the intelligence information they receive.
"Those who oppose collective bargaining try to say they would not be able to act quickly whether it meant adding more officers or creating new shifts or moving employees to different terminals. That is absolutely not true at all. They have that authority," she declared.
Earlier this year, AFGE filed to hold the union representation election at TSA, regardless of collective bargaining rights, arguing they were separate issues.
AFGE filed a petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) Feb. 22, certifying that more than 30 percent of TSA employees sought a union election. (NTEU later filed its own petition.)
"We took a very novel approach, based on a Federal Labor Relations Authority case back when TSA was created," recounted AFGE President John Gage. "We filed for a representational election not including collective bargaining. We thought we could get the election out of the way and then get the rights rather than get the rights and then hold the election. It was a timesaving maneuver."
The FLRA did not respond to the petition within the 90-day window usually reserved for such matters, however, so ultimately the unions saved no time with their petitions. Gage acknowledged that the Authority now likely would wait out the clock for DHS or the White House to make a decision on the matter rather than expose itself to political criticism.
"We are not happy," Gage told HSToday.us. "We are trying to play by the rules; we are doing everything we can; and we keep running into people who will not look at this strictly on the merits."
Pistole should embrace the issue of collective bargaining as a just cause, Gage continued. Gage met with the TSA administrator himself, hoping that the review of collective bargaining would take only several weeks. But now it has stretched on longer than originally anticipated.
Still, Obama and Napolitano in previous years have expressed sympathy toward the view of providing collective bargaining rights to TSOs–Obama as a presidential candidate and Napolitano before numerous congressional appearances.
"They have been sympathetic to us but they have been hesitant to stand up to some really misplaced criticism," Gage noted. "If they cannot stand up and say having a union has no adverse implications for national security, that’s too bad. They should say it strongly."
With the national elections looming, no decision or recommendation will be made until after Nov. 2, Gage stated. Until that time, TSOs languish in a system that does not provide them with any fair means to adjudicate their grievances, he said.
"They desperately need a union," Gage asserted. "I have sympathy for the effort it took to put this agency together. But at this time, they should be operating a lot smoother. The employees seem to think that every time something goes wrong–which is always because of some management screw-up–that the blame comes down on the TSO, who loses his job. Then we have to fight through company grievance procedures to try to get any justice.
"It has nothing to do with national security. It has to do with self-serving management hiding its own faults," Gage criticized.