Defiant airport screeners join union


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Jun 25, 2002
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$16.00 an hour beats working at McDonald's.

Defiant airport screeners join union
THE WASHINGTON TIMES ^ | March 4, 2003 | By Tom Ramstack

The American Federation of Government Employees swore in the first group of airport screeners as union members yesterday in a public act of defiance toward the Bush administration.

The Transportation Security Administration forbids collective bargaining among its employees, including about 56,000 screeners. Last week, the federal government merged all operations of the TSA into the Department of Homeland Security.

AFGE officials said that even if they are stopped from negotiating a contract for the screeners, they still would represent the workers in grievances about inadequate training, unresponsive management, sexual harassment and long hours.

The Aviation and Transportation Security Act that created the TSA in November 2001 limits rights of collective bargaining, not union representation for grievances.

"We would no sooner be able to stop that than to stop them from joining the Elks," TSA spokesman Brian Turmail said.

AFGE officials said the 13 screeners who took oaths to "be loyal and true" to the union are an opening salvo in the AFGE's effort to organize all of the nearly 180,000 Homeland Security Department employees.

A lawsuit filed by the union seeking a court order to allow it to represent screeners in collective bargaining is pending in federal court in the District.

A dispute in Congress last year over the extent to which unions could represent Homeland Security workers delayed formation of the department. Democrats argued for collective-bargaining rights, and the delay caused by the fight over unionization contributed to strong Republican victories in the November election, political analysts say.

About a fourth of Homeland Security Department employees are union members, most of them from the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"I'm not looking for conflict," AFGE President Bobby Harnage said. However, he added, "I'm expecting conflict because that's this administration's agenda."

The TSA took over airport screening from private security firms after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The swearing-in ceremony yesterday coincided with the AFGE issuing a charter for a union local chapter to represent screeners. One local chapter, based in the District, will represent all baggage and passenger screeners nationwide.

The AFGE plans to file numerous grievances with the Federal Labor Relations Authority on behalf of screeners in the coming days, Mr. Harnage said.

It already has filed seven grievances since November seeking to represent screeners at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, New York's LaGuardia Airport and others.

In January, TSA chief Adm. James Loy issued an order forbidding collective bargaining for screeners. "Collective bargaining is not compatible with the flexibility required to wage the war against terrorism," he said.

Bush administration officials said union job protections could prevent the most talented employees from being promoted quickly and protect difficult workers from getting fired.

The AFGE responded with the lawsuit that accuses Adm. Loy and the TSA of violating the constitutional rights of screeners to be represented by unions.

"The right of government employees to be represented by a union and engage in collective bargaining has never been proven to be a national security risk," Mr. Harnage said yesterday.

He also said federal law protects the government against any union contract provisions that would interfere with the war on terrorism.

"Every contract, regardless of content or agreement, can be waived or suspended by management unilaterally during an emergency," Mr. Harnage said.

Federal officials said the TSA is authorized by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act to determine the extent of its employees' union rights.

"The law gives the TSA very broad powers over hiring and firing and all the things having to do with employment," said David Schaffer, chief counsel for the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.

Screeners at the downtown press conference yesterday said they disregarded TSA policy that prohibits them from talking to reporters because safety problems at their job sites imperil the traveling public.

Cynthia Cavalie, a screener at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, said the health of screeners and the public is threatened by a lack of job safety.

"I've received no training in the lifting of heavy and potentially dangerous luggage and cargo," Mrs. Cavalie said. "Neither have any of my colleagues. This has led to numerous injuries."

On one occasion, she said, a former Argenbright Security screener "threatened to beat me up if he saw me again."

Argenbright Security was the largest of the security companies that provided screening for the airlines before government employees replaced them.

Her complaints to management resulted in no action against the former screener, she said.

Chris Ashcraft, a screener at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, said supervisors gave inconsistent orders when metal-detection wands revealed passengers carrying metallic objects.

"So you can get in trouble for doing what a supervisor actually told you," he said.