Politics & Policy

Decommissioning

Stopping a Democratic TSA unionization plan.

The Senate GOP minority, backed by a veto threat from President Bush, appears to have stymied Democrats’ efforts to give Transportation Security Administration (TSA) aviation-security screeners collective-bargaining power. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff told a group of GOP senators at a policy lunch Tuesday that the president would veto any antiterrorism legislation containing the collective-bargaining provision. Later, GOP Senate staff circulated a letter signed by 36 Republican senators expressing opposition to the measure and pledging to sustain the veto.

“I’m pleased that we brought this up and made this a public issue,” South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint tells National Review Online. “We got the backstop of a veto, and we sent letter indicating that we’ve got enough support to sustain a veto. If the Democrats want to slip this in, they need to understand that they’ll be killing the whole 9/11 Commission bill.”

In 2002, the GOP successfully opposed the TSA collective-bargaining provision when Democrats tried to include it in the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security. Opponents argued that collective bargaining would mire every TSA personnel decision in a morass of endless negotiations, hindering its ability to train and deploy its screeners in response to sudden threats. As one GOP Senate aide put it this week, “It would be like unionizing the military.”

TSA employees already have the ability to join a union. The AFGE (American Federation of Government Employees) currently recruits TSA employees with promises that, among other things, it will lobby to get them a seat at the collective-bargaining table. The realization of those efforts would bring TSA employees into the AFGE fold, netting the union an estimated 43,000 new members and, by DeMint’s office’s count, $17 million more in yearly dues.

AFGE would likely use its weight at the bargaining table to force TSA to be more like other federal agencies, where seniority plays a bigger role than merit and firing problematic employees is notoriously time-consuming and litigious. The Democrats’ plan to extend collective bargaining to TSA would make it virtually impossible for the troubled agency — last October, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that TSA aviation-security screeners at Newark Airport failed 20 of 22 undercover-security tests in a single week — to fire employees for poor job performance.

“It really surprises me that the Democrats are trying to slip this in,” DeMint tells NRO. “It sends the message that their allegiance is more to the union bosses than to protecting our country,”

“Unionizing” TSA would also create a massive roadblock to the eventual re-privatization of airport-security screening. As Robert Poole and James Carafano explained in the Heritage Foundation study “Time to Rethink Airport Security,” TSA currently both regulates and provides airport-screening services — a dual role that creates a conflict of interest. Poole and Carafano argue that Congress could solve this problem by returning the provision of screening services to the individual airports, with TSA remaining in a regulatory capacity to set and enforce high performance standards. But if, through collective-bargaining power, TSA screeners attained the same freedom from accountability other federal employees enjoy, they would have every incentive to remain federal employees. The AFGE’s clout with the Democrats would all but foreclose Poole’s and Carafano’s solution.

Aides from several different GOP Senate offices also make some version of the argument that airport security is already a barely navigable nightmare. Imagine how bad the lines will be when half the screeners are off on their mandatory hour-long breaks, or the gridlock that will ensue when they are able to strike at the drop of 3 oz. travel-size tube of toothpaste.

But DeMint argues that security was the most important reason he and other GOP senators took action on the measure. “If you listened to Chertoff [Tuesday] at the policy lunch, he talked about London, about catching the hijackers there.” After the London bomb plot was foiled, Chertoff reportedly told the senators, TSA changed its procedures within 24 hours to respond to the threat.

“If [TSA] had been under collective bargaining, they would have had to go ahead with the changes and face a lawsuit or go into negotiations before they could act,” DeMint says. “They make a good case that they need [that flexibility] more and more.”

The debate will continue as the antiterrorism bill moves to the Senate floor on Wednesday. The bill is the result of the Democrats’ 2006 campaign promise to implement all of the remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations as soon as they took office. (The commission did not recommend collective bargaining for TSA employees.) It remains to be seen whether Democrats will keep the provision and force a confrontation with the administration or drop it in the face of a certain veto. 

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